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Sudden Turn Near Roadblock Justifies Traffic Stop

Stinson v. State (10/18/2012).  Clayton County law enforcement officers participating in a road block in Clayton County testified that they observed Stinson's truck crest to the top of a hill where the roadblock became visible, stop very suddenly and make a very sharp right turn onto an intersecting road.

The court recognized that normal driving which incidentally avoids a roadblock does not justify an investigative stop.

The court accepted that Stinson's driving did not amount to a traffic violation.

However, the appellate court accepted the trial court's finding that the abrupt furtive turn justified an investigative stop as it gave the officer  a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity.

The court didn't even attempt to determine what, if any, criminal activity was suspected.  The

The decision is unfortunately consistent with previous decisions.  It is unfortunate because it involves subjective impressions of the officer about someone's driving.  After all, how does one drive an automobile furtively.  Furtive is characterized by stealth, surreptitious.  It is sneaky or secretive or done to escape notice.

Is it furtive, to stop suddenly in the road?  What is suddenly?  There is no description that brakes were locked or that the car skidded.  Could the stop have been just as consistent with an innocent driver who crests a hill and sees the street sign for his destination just ahead and has to stop suddenly to be able to turn.

Is it furtive to turn very sharply? And what is a very sharp turn?  There was no description of the angle of the intersection or the angle at which the driver turned his vehicle relative to the intersection.

Roadblocks are themselves to be viewed suspiciously from a judicial standpoint.  They are an imposition of citizens right to free movement within our country without any specific suspicion of wrongdoing.  Roadblocks are allowed under a judicially created exception to the Fourth Amendment.  How much more suspiciously should a traffic stop be viewed for a driver who chooses not to come into contact with government actors?

This case and its predecessors simply rewards those officers who are well-trained enough to utter the magic words which will justify the traffic stop.  An officer who says that the driver turned onto a side road will have his traffic stop invalidated, while one who says that the turn was sudden, very sharp or furtive or something similar will have his stop upheld.

Because there will be no objective evidence such as a video recording of the driving, the court will have to rely on the testimony of the officer, and only if the officer has demonstrated a pattern of deception will such characterizations be disregarded.

Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals roadblock jurisprudence has given limited protection to the motoring public against roadblocks which are often poorly established, poorly justified, and poorly executed.  The original exception for roadblocks envisioned roadblocks set up with warning signs, traffic cones and appropriate lighting to conduct a roadblock.  These days, roadblocks often have no signage or cones and are often mistaken for accident sites.

Given that appearance, is it any wonder that a driver would divert to avoid a perceived wreck which is involving multiple law enforcement vehicles and may mean significant delays.  However, such a reasonable action might be used to justify an otherwise improper stop.  The bad thing is that the cases where the  officer finds no criminal wrongdoing result in no record for the courts to be aware that there have been stops where the drivers were not impaired or didn't have contraband or didn't have outstanding criminal warrants.

In this case, it turns out that there may be evidence that the driver was impaired, but the officer's had no such evidence at the time that they stopped the driver.  They stopped the vehicle because they had a hunch that he was trying to avoid their roadblock.  Stops are supposed to be based upon evidence not hunches.

Sean A. Black

Sean A. Black is a 1992 graduate of the Emory University School of Law. He has been in private practice in Toccoa, Georgia since June 1, 1992.

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