The Journal of The DuPage County Bar Association

Back Issues > Vol. 13 (2000-01)

NIU'S Northern Exposure
Momentary Crossing Of Center Line Held To Be “Reasonable Suspicion” For A Traffic Stop

By Steven Brooks

Editor’s Note: This article is published in connection with the Brief’s cooperative program with Northern Illinois University College of Law and the NIU Law Review. Under this program, NIU students regularly submit articles to the Brief so as to avail themselves of an opportunity to have their work published. Readers of the Brief will benefit from scholarly articles on topics of current interest.

In the matter of People v. Rush, 2001 WL 332765, before the Second District of the Appellate Court of Illinois, a three-judge panel found that a driver’s single, momentary crossing of the center line, without more, produces a sufficient basis for a police traffic stop. This ruling, according to the Court, creates a split between the districts of the Illinois Appellate Court on whether such circumstances give rise to the necessary seizure required under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution for a violation of the law.

The Underlying Facts
On October 24, 1999, at approximately 1:30 a.m., defendant Mark C. Rush, III, was driving his pickup truck when he noticed that a vehicle was following him “very closely”. Because the vehicle “made [him] a little nervous” he kept his eye on the vehicle. After the vehicle followed him for approximately four miles, the vehicle activated its emergency lights, revealing that it was a police unit from the Ogle County Sheriff’s Department. Although Rush admitted to deputy sheriff Brian Ketter that he had consumed five to six beers within 24 hours prior to the stop, Rush testified that he had not committed any traffic violations while the officer followed him.

Officer Ketter, however, testified that while he followed Rush’s truck, he maintained a distance of “three to four car lengths” behind Rush’s vehicle and saw the vehicle “cross the center line twice” and “cross the white fog line”. This testimony contradicted Ketter’s notice of summary suspension of driving privileges given to Rush wherein Ketter wrote that Rush had only crossed the center line once. Ketter acknowledged that other than the center line crossing, Rush did not exceed the speed limit, disregard any traffic control devices, or commit any other traffic violations while he followed Rush.

After approaching the defendant’s vehicle, officer Ketter noticed that the defendant emitted a “strong odor of alcohol” and that his speech was slurred. Based upon these observations, Rush was asked to exit his vehicle so field sobriety tests could be performed. After administering a series of test, officer Ketter placed Rush under arrest for violation of 625 ILCS 5/11-501(a)(2), (driving under the influence of alcohol), and 625 ILCS 5/11-501(a)(1), (driving with an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more).

Based upon the above, the defendant filed a motion in the trial court to suppress the state’s evidence, arguing that he was stopped and arrested in violation of the fourth amendment. Also, because Rush was given notice that his driving privileges would be summarily suspended, he also petitioned the trial court to rescind the suspension, contending that the officer lacked “reasonable grounds” to believe he was driving under the influence of alcohol.
After arguing the motions, the People and the Defendant stipulated to the following facts:

1. That the defendant was stopped and the officer did not have an arrest warrant;
2. That the officer testified that the defendant crossed the center line twice’ and the fog line once, but in the officer’s notice to Rush, he wrote that the defendant crossed the center line once and the fog line once;
3. That the officer did not indicate any other erratic driving and did not indicate any weaving by the defendant other than the momentary crossing of the center line.

Based upon these stipulations, the trial court granted both the motion to suppress the State’s evidence and the petition to rescind the summary suspension finding that the momentary crossing of the center line by Rush did not give Officer Ketter “reasonable grounds” to support his stop of the vehicle.

Reasonable Suspicion v. Reasonable Grounds
Initially, the Court noted as a general rule, a motion to suppress or a petition to rescind will only be reversed if it is manifestly erroneous. However, because Rush’s motion and petition were based upon questions of reasonable suspicion and probable cause, determination of the issues required not only a review of the trial court’s findings of fact for clear error, but also a de novo review of the ultimate question as to whether reasonable suspicion justified the seizure” (citing Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690 (1996)). After determining that the trial court’s findings were not erroneous, the issue became whether the momentary crossing of the centerline by Rush’s vehicle supported officer Ketter’s stop of the defendant.

The Court first recited that a traffic stop by an officer only requires “reasonable suspicion” that the vehicle or its occupant is subject to seizure for a violation on the law. Under this standard, reasonable suspicion by the officer must be based on specific and articulable facts, and not just a mere hunch, which would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a law was being broken. The courts will review the officer’s decisions using an objective standard as to whether the facts available to the officer “warrant a person of reasonable caution to believe that the action which the officer took was appropriate.” (See Village of Lincolnshire v. DiSpirito, 552 N.E.2d 1238, at 1240 (Ill. App. 3d 1990)). This is not the same as the more exacting requirement of “probable cause” to arrest or search. Probable cause, which is equivalent to “reasonable grounds”, exists if an officer knows facts that would lead a reasonable person to believe that the defendant has committed an offense and requires more than mere suspicion. Therefore, the trial court’s holding that the officer did not have “reasonable grounds” to support the stop invoked the wrong standard. (The reviewing court noted that even the appellate court has confused “reasonable grounds” with “reasonable suspicion”).

Momentary Crossing of Center line gives “Reasonable Suspicion”
Although noting that the Third District has implied that a “nonhazardous, momentary crossing of the center line” alone does not support a valid stop, the Second District Court has found otherwise. Noting that in general, a driver is required by law to stay in the right of the center line (see 625 ILCS 5/11-701(a)), the Court held that an officer who sees a car drive out of the proper lane provides the officer with the knowledge of sufficiently specific and articulable facts from which a reasonable person might conclude that a law was being broken. Thus the officer has reasonable suspicion to stop and seize the individual. However, because 625 ILCS 5/11-701(a) does contain exceptions as to when a driver may cross the center line, a stop by an officer would be invalid when the officer knew additional facts that make it reasonably apparent that the crossing was legal.

In this matter, the defendant presented no evidence to suggest that his crossing was legal. Rush’s only suggestion as to why he made a nonhazardous crossing stemmed from the closeness of the officer’s vehicle while following him. The Court found that the crossing of a center line merely because a driver is being closely followed is not one of the exceptions contained in 625 ILCS 5/11-701(a) and therefore, officer Ketter did not know of any facts to indicate that Rush’s crossing was legal. Based upon this, Rush’s momentary crossing of the center line provided officer Ketter with the necessary reasonable suspicion to stop and seize the defendant.

Is There Really a Split between the Second and Third District Appellate Courts?
In 1987, the Third District first addressed the issue of a momentary crossing giving reasonable suspicion to an officer for a stop in the case of People v. Collins, 506 N.E.2d 963 (Ill. App. 3d 1987). In this matter, the officer stopped the defendant after seeing him cross the center line as defendant’s vehicle approached him. Although the defendant did not deny crossing the center line, he claimed he did so to avoid a vehicle parked in his lane. Although the officer testified that he saw Collins cross the center line twice more while in pursuit, the officer admitted that the only reason he gave for stopping the defendant was his first observation of the defendant crossing the center line. The officer further did not refute Collins’ claim that he swerved to avoid a park car. Based upon these facts, the Court upheld the trial court’s ruling suppressing the State’s evidence.

This case can be reconciled with Rush on two bases. First, this ruling was issued prior to the United States Supreme Court decision in Ornelas, which required a de novo review of reasonable suspicion and probable cause. Therefore, the holding was based upon the prior rule that a reviewing court will not disturb the trials court’s finding on a motion to suppress unless that finding is determined to be manifestly erroneous. Here, the Third District did not determine that the trial court’s ruling met such a standard. Second, under 625 ILCS 5/11-701(a)(2), it is an exception for the driver to cross the center line to avoid an obstruction. Under Rush, this would be a legal crossing that would invalidate the stop.

In People v. Decker, 537 N.E.2d 386 (Ill. App. 3d 1989), the issue of center line crossing again came before the Third District. In this matter, the officer stopped the defendant after claiming Decker was weaving within his lane and crossing the center line. Upon a challenge of the trial court’s ruling suppressing the state’s evidence of DUI, the court found that to stop a vehicle “a police officer must have an articulable and reasonable suspicion”. Although applying the right standard, the Court mistakenly called this test the “reasonable grounds” test. However, the Court did acknowledge that “erratic driving, such as weaving across a roadway or even weaving within a lane, may provide sufficient basis for an investigative stop of a motor vehicle.” This dicta would seem to coincide with the Second District Court’s holding in Rush. However, because the defendant disputed the officer’s testimony of his weaving and crossing the center line, the Court, still applying the pre-Ornelas test, concluded that it was for the trier of fact to determine credibility and weight of the witnesses testimony, and that a reviewing court will not disturb the trial court’s finding unless manifestly erroneous.

The confusion between the District Court’s split seems to stem from the Third District’s holding in People v. Faletti, 573 N.E.2d 867 (Ill. App. 3d 1991). In this matter, an officer pulled over the defendant after the defendant crossed the centerline to avoid the officer who was pulled off to the side of the road. The trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the state’s evidence of DUI on the finding that the officer’s vehicle was parked in such a manner that vehicles approaching would have to cross into the other lane to safely pass, and therefore, the officer did not have reasonable grounds (suspicion) to stop the vehicle. Once again, this would be an exception under Rush that would invalidate a stop.

In upholding the trial court’s suppression, the Third District Court applied the proper reasonable suspicion test, but called it reasonable grounds. The Court did acknowledge “that erratic driving, such as weaving across a roadway or even within a lane,” may provide for a sufficient stop, but the court added in dicta, that “an automobile’s single, momentary crossing of the centerline, without more, does not necessarily provide a sufficient basis for an investigatory stop.” In support this statement, the Court cited People v. Collins. However, nowhere in Collins is this statement made or indicated. In Collins, the upholding of the trial court’s order to suppress the State’s evidence was made in part by the fact that there was no undisputed testimony that the defendant had to cross the center line to avoid a hazard. It seems that the Faletti court applied the Collins conclusion without reviewing the underlying facts.

Based upon the Second District’s ruling in Rush, and close examination of the Third District’s rulings, there does not seem to be a dispute among the District Appellate Courts in Illinois that a police officer may have reasonable suspicion to stop a motorist whose vehicle momentarily crosses the center line. As such, the stop is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment and evidence obtained from the seizure should be admitted in the trial court.

Steven Brooks is a Second Year Law Student at NIU. He is the new Symposium Editor for the Northern Illinois University Law Review.

DCBA Brief