Warrantless Traffic Stop Upheld for Driving in “Passing Only” Lane

Driving in the “Passing Only” Left Lane for Forty-Five Seconds Creates Reasonable Suspicion for Warrantless Traffic Stop in Texas

Passing in Left Lane in TexasJaganathan v. State: Francheska Jaganathan was driving in the left lane of a three-lane Texas highway, just ahead of a police cruiser. Mounted with a dashboard camera, the cruiser accelerated and changed lanes, but stayed behind Jaganathan’s car. A few seconds later, Jaganathan’s car passed a “Left Lane for Passing Only Sign,” yet her vehicle continued in the left lane despite the middle lane being clear of traffic. About forty-five seconds later, the trooper turned on his overhead lights, and conducted a traffic stop of Jaganathan’s car. During the traffic stop, the trooper smelled marijuana, prompting a search of the vehicle. The trooper found marijuana in the trunk, and as a result, Jaganathan was charged with possession of marijuana.

At trial, Jaganathan filed a motion to suppress the evidence, but the court denied the motion. Jaganathan chose a plea agreement where she pled guilty and was placed on deferred adjudication. On appeal, Jaganathan argued that the trooper lacked reasonable suspicion to conduct the traffic stop in the first place. The court of appeals agreed with her, stating that Jaganathan likely stayed in the left lane for safety reasons, that seeing the cruiser may have influenced her decision to stay out of the trooper’s way, and that a few seconds were an insufficient amount of time “to conclude that [Jaganathan] committed a [traffic] violation.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas disagrees with the court of appeals, citing the reasonable suspicion standard in Texas, and the Texas Transportation Code. The Court of Criminal Appeals also clarifies the issue at hand.

The issue is not whether Jaganathan committed a traffic offense, but whether the trooper had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.

First, “A trooper may make a warrantless traffic stop if the reasonable suspicion standard is satisfied.” Guerra v. State, 432 S.W.3d 905, 911 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). “Reasonable suspicion exists if the trooper has specific and articulable facts that, when combined with rational inferences from those facts, would lead him to reasonably suspect that a particular person has engaged …in criminal activity.” Abney v. State, 394 S.W.3d 542, 548 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013).

Second, “an operator of a motor vehicle [must] comply with an applicable official traffic-control device, including a sign.” TEX. TRANSP. CODE § 544.004(a); § 541.304(1). “Before a trooper can have reasonable suspicion to believe that a defendant committed the traffic offense of failing to obey a “Left Lane for Passing Only” sign, the trooper must be aware of facts that support a reasonable inference that the defendant drove past the sign before being pulled over.” Abney, 394 S.W.3d at 549.

Here, Jaganathan was driving in the left lane without passing other cars, after driving past a sign that prohibited that conduct. The dashboard camera captured the sign and all of the movements of the car. According to the Court of Criminal Appeals, even if Jaganathan had a defense of necessity—she HAD to be in the left lane for a medical or traffic emergency—the trooper still had reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop. The Court of Criminal Appeals states, “these were only possibilities, and so it was reasonable for [the trooper] to suspect the appellant had violated the law.” Further, the reasonable suspicion standard “accepts the risk that officers may stop innocent people.” Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119, 125 (2000). As a result of the forty-five second traffic violation, the trooper had reasonable suspicion to pull Jaganathan’s car over; and, as a result of smelling marijuana, the trooper was able to search the car without a warrant, resulting in charges against Jaganathan. The Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

It is important to note, however, that the ruling has a dissenting opinion. Justice Meyers is adamant that the sign and the Transportation Code supporting it are problematic for the following reasons:

• The Code is unclear on how to comply or not comply with the sign.
• The Code does not state a specific amount of time a driver has to pass and merge back into the non-passing lane.
• The Code does not address passing a string of cars, in the middle lane.
• The Code does not address the need to accelerate to be able to pass, whether intended or unintended (for example if the car being passed speeds up, making passing difficult).
• Proving a driver’s intent to pass another car is difficult.

If you or a loved one are facing traffic violations or drug charges, please contact our office for a free consultation at (817) 993-9249.

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