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Ohio Appeals Court: Driving With Caution Is Not Suspicious

January 18, 2010

Ohio Appeals Court: Driving With Caution Is Not Suspicious
Ohio Appeals Court rules that police cannot stop a driver for exercising caution at a flashing yellow light. 

Judge Clair E. DickinsonPolice may not pull a driver over merely because he exercised caution at a flashing yellow light, the Ohio Court of Appeals ruled on Wednesday. A three-judge panel took up the case of Jonathon Hatch who had been stopped by Cuyahoga Falls police officer Theodore Davis on February 21, 2009 at 3am because Hatch made a rolling stop when he came upon a flashing yellow traffic light at Third Street.

In many jurisdictions, flashing yellow lights are used late at night to allow vehicles on primary streets to continue drive without waiting for signal changes at empty cross streets. Ohio law specifies that upon coming to such a light, “operators of vehicles… may proceed through the intersection or past such signal only with caution.”

That morning, Hatch’s rolling stop obstructed no traffic because there was no traffic to obstruct. It also violated no traffic law. Officer Davis, however, found it suspicious as did a municipal court judge.

“Given the time of night and lack of obstructions, traffic, traffic control or other factors that might cause a driver to stop, the stops… constitute erratic driving providing a reasonable articulable suspicion.”

After stopping Hatch, Officer Davis found evidence that Hatch may have been driving under the influence of alcohol and arrested him. Hatch appealed, arguing that the officer should never have stopped him in the first place because his careful driving gave Davis absolutely no reason to suspect he had done anything wrong. The appeals court agreed.

“Although Mr. Hatch may have used more caution than necessary, his decision to bring his car to an almost complete stop also did not violate any traffic laws. It is possible Mr. Hatch initially mistook the yellow light for one that was about to turn red, but started driving again when he realized it was a flashing yellow,” Presiding Judge Clair E. Dickinson wrote for the court. “Unusual driving does not necessarily give a law enforcement officer a reasonable, articulable suspicion that the driver is engaged in criminal activity…. This court reverses because, under the totality of the circumstances, Mr. Hatch’s unusual driving did not give Officer Davis reason to suspect that he was engaged in criminal activity.”

The majority suggested that had Officer Davis followed Hatch for a greater distance, he may have spotted a traffic violation. Without one, the court had no choice but to suppress the evidence gathered as a result of the illegal stop.

A copy of the case is available in a 40k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Ohio v. Hatch (Court of Appeals of Ohio, Ninth District, 1/13/2010)

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