July 7, 2008, was a landmark day in the area of DUI defense in Washington. On that fateful day, Division One of the Court of Appeals in State v. Tonelli-Prado, 145 Wn. App. 646 (Div. I, 2008) interpreted and set guidelines for the application of Washington’s lane travel statute RCW 46.61.140 for the first time.
In the Wild West days of Washington DUI defense before the Prado ruling, DUI practitioners often scrambled to find case law analyzing similar lane travel statutes and the elements that the reviewing courts focused upon. The strongest case with potential sway over a Washington court’s decision pre-Prado was the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case United States v. Colin. In Colin, California’s linguistically similar lane travel statute was found to contain two prongs (vehicle movement and endangerment of others) and was determined to be “ambiguous" as to the specific lane travel movement that would be considered a violation. While the Colin case was deemed on occasion to be instructive, oftentimes courts were reluctant to question the interpretation of law enforcement in making an initial stop on a previously unadjudicated statute. This reluctance would abate with the Prado decision.
In May of 2004 a law enforcement officer witnessed Mr. Tonelli-Prado’s vehicle cross an eight-inch white dividing the exit lane from the adjacent lane by two tire widths for one second. The trial court found that that suppression was not appropriate because the vehicle actually crossed the lane line, rather than merely touching the lane line. Upon review, however, the Superior Court found that under a totality of the circumstances argument, that a brief incursion that did not result in a “safety problem" was not sufficient grounds to premise law enforcement contact. The State appealed the ruling of the Superior Court.
In analyzing the fact-situation in conjunction with RCW 46.61.140, on appeal Division One wrote, “We believe the legislature’s use of the language ‘as nearly as practicable’ demonstrates a recognition that brief incursions over the lane lines will happen. A vehicle crossing over the line for one second by two tire widths on an exit lane does not justify a belief that the vehicle was operated unlawfully." The Prado court continued, validating its decision upon a second prong as well that, “the law enforcement officer testified that there was no other traffic present and no danger posed to other vehicles."
Upon the release of the Prado case, prosecutors statewide were heard to utter a collective gasp followed by a shared sigh of relief as, while law enforcement was finally reined in on broadly interpreting RCW 46.61.140, the fact situation in Prado constituted the most innocent and brief of lane travel deviations. It was the belief of many prosecuting attorney offices that Prado could be easily distinguished on a factual basis from a majority of multiple deviation lane travel cases, and ultimately would only influence the most mundane DUI cases.
While a court can only rule upon the facts before the court, it is important to note the language Division One chose in rendering its decision in Prado, in particular that the decision itself, while adjudicating a singular deviation, is written in the plural, “brief incursions over lane lines". The Prado court is very clearly sending the message that multiple, momentary deviations from a driver’s lane of travel would additionally be protected under the “as nearly as practicable" umbrella of RCW 46.61.140.
The Prado court additionally bolsters the reasoning of the Superior Court that a totality of the circumstances argument should be implemented when reviewing a potential violation of RCW 46.61.140. This “totality analysis" would likely consider whether the lane movement of the driver in question endangered other motorists or pedestrians.
While the strength of the totality analysis has yet to be employed where the lane travel constitutes more than brief deviations, it is an important defense shield where multiple deviations occur in the late evening or early morning hours with reduced traffic flow, or when multiple deviations occur over a remote highway fog line. For Washington drivers charged with DUI, and the Washington DUI attorneys tasked with defending them, this represents an important potential defense to explore in every case where a factual question revolves around brief incursions over the lane lines being used as justification for a DUI traffic stop.