May 21, 2019

Tenth Circuit: Lane Change on Highway Without Use of Signal Is Justifiable Basis for Stopping Vehicle; Drug Evidence Found in Subsequent Search Is Admissible

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Burciaga on Wednesday, July 25, 2012.

The Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded the district court’s decision. The government appeals the district court’s determination that an officer’s stop of Respondent’s vehicle was not justified after pulling the vehicle over for failing to use a turn signal. As a result, drug evidence found after a search of the vehicle was excluded from trial. “Where ‘other traffic may be affected,’ § 66-7-325 of the New Mexico Statutes requires a motorist changing traffic lanes to signal ‘continuously during not less than the last one hundred feet traveled by the vehicle’ before the change. The New Mexico Supreme Court has construed § 66-7-325 to require ‘a signal even when there is only a reasonable possibility that other traffic may be affected by the signaling driver’s movement.'”

The Tenth Circuit disagreed with the district court and found that a New Mexico highway patrol officer lawfully stopped Respondent’s vehicle based on a suspected violation of § 66-7-325, where Respondent, “without timely engaging his directional signal, changed from the left to the right lane on the interstate after passing the officer’s patrol car.” While the district court found that the stop violated Respondent’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures because the officer’s testimony failed to establish that traffic “could have been affected” by Respondent’s lane change absent facts not in evidence, the Court held that “§ 66-7-325 as applied to the facts provided the officer with an objectively justifiable basis for stopping [Respondent]’s vehicle.”

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