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Illinois Appellate Court Approves Intersection Lane Changing
Second highest court in Illinois says police may not stop drivers for changing lanes in the middle of an intersection.

John W. Rice
There is nothing illegal about changing lanes in the middle of an intersection, the Illinois Appellate Court ruled last month. Marjory Higgens, an officer with the Bolingbrook Police Department, shared the widely held opinion that the opposite was true -- that such maneuvers were prohibited. The court said this was a clear error.

On March 13, 2018, Officer Higgens was patrolling Route 53 when she saw three cars ahead of her stopped at the intersection. A maroon Ford Focus hesitated momentarily as the light turned green, so she decided to follow. The Focus turned on its signal in the middle of the intersection so that the driver, John W. Rice, could move toward the lane that turned onto the Interstate 55 on-ramp. Officer Higgens decided to pull him over.

As a result of being pulled over, Rice eventually was charged with driving under the influence (DUI), but the appellate court was only examining whether the initial stop was justified under state law. At trial, Officer Higgens noted that the lane change maneuver was safely executed and did not interfere with anyone else on the road, but she still wrote him up for "improper lane change." The statute in question contains no prohibition on changing lanes in an intersection.

"A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from such lane until the driver has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety," Illinois Vehicle Code section 11-709 states. "A vehicle shall not be driven in the center lane except when overtaking and passing another vehicle traveling in the same direction when such center lane is clear of traffic within a safe distance, or in preparation for making a left turn..."

Usually, courts give complete deference to police interpretations of the law, even when they are wrong. The US Supreme Court's Heien precedent (view case) holds that an interpretation of the law merely needs to be plausible to hold up in court, even if the court determines that the accused actually had done nothing wrong. The appellate panel found the lack of ambiguity in the statute made the officer's assumptions unreasonable.

"There is also no language that would cause confusion regarding the prohibition of lane changes within an intersection," Judge Daniel L. Schmidt wrote for the court. "The state concedes that after scouring the compiled statutes of this state, none criminalize such a maneuver. In light of the plain language of the statute, we cannot say the officer's belief that the statute prohibited lane changes within an intersection was objectively reasonable."

The court noted that the officer in question was up front about what happened in her testimony.

"As an aside, Officer Higgens is to be commended for her honesty on the stand during the hearing on the motion to suppress," Judge Schmidt wrote. "She was upfront regarding her mistake of law and did not waiver or attempt to provide an alternative ground for the stop when one did not exist. Her testimony makes clear that the mistake was subjectively honest and made in good faith."

As a result, the court suppressed the evidence gathered from the illegal traffic stop and vacated Rice's conviction. A copy of the ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Illinois v. Rice (Illinois Appellate Court, 2/8/2021)

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