In the world of Vehicle & Traffic Law (VTL), the small stuff often leads to bigger trouble.  There are many common small violations of the law which can lead to fines, searches of your car, or more serious charges.  In many cases, the driver doesn’t even realize what is being done is illegal.

CASE 1: “Close is not good enough.”   The driver was headed west on Lake Ave. toward Broadway.  It was close to midnight.  The late night hours are “prime time” for DWIs.  The police are looking for any reason to stop cars. 

Lake Ave. expands from one to three lanes two blocks from the intersection with Broadway. The far right lane is right hand turn only.  As the driver pulled into the far right lane, she was facing a red light.  She pulled up to the intersection, stopped for the light, and engaged her turn signal.  

After waiting for the light to turn green, she turned right.  Believing that purpose of indicating her route of travel had been fulfilled by being in a designate lane and signaling while waiting for the light, she thought she had complied with the law.  Or at least she had come close.  A police officer disagreed and stopped her less than a block after her turn.  He wrote her a ticket for Failure to Signal, § 1163 (a) of the VTL.  Read in conjunction with its section (b), the statue requires drivers to signal when changing lanes or turning.  The signal must be activated for at least the last 100 feet of travel before the turn or lane change.

The financial penalty for a violation of VTL § 1163 is a fine of $150 for a first offense, $300 for a second offense, and $450 for a third.  There is a surcharge of either $88 or $93 depending upon what court you are in.  Jail for 15 days can be imposed for a first offense, 45 for a second, and 90 for a third.

If this had happened during daylight hours, I don’t think the cop would have stopped my young client.  But it was late and she was young. The officer used her failure to signal 100 feet before the turn as a reason for the stop.  And then the little infraction led to a bigger problem.  The officer smelled alcohol on the driver’s breath.  After field tests and some admissions by the driver, she was arrested for the crime of a misdemeanor DWI.

I challenged the legality of the stop.  If an officer’s reason for stopping a driver falls short of the legal standard, the rest of the charges against her have to be dismissed.  My argument was two pronged: 1) the driver had complied with the spirit and intention statute…giving notice of  her intended direction of travel by being in a right hand turn lane and by signaling once she was stopped at a red light, and 2) it was impossible to comply with the statue on that particular stretch of road.  The lane was too short.

    My office was just a few blocks from the scene of the stop, and having traveled that road thousands of times, I heard my resident voice of suspicion whispering, “I bet the block is not 100 feet long!”.   I dug out a tape measure and took a field trip to the scene.  Sure enough, the right hand turn lane on that section of Lake Ave. was less than 100 feet long….by about 3 1/2 feet.  

The suppression hearing was held on the street.  The City Court Judge was interested enough in my argument to have us all leave the court room and hold part of the proceedings on the street, stenographer and all.  I measured the block for the Judge, beginning from where the lane marker began to where the thick horizontal white line ending the lane was painted.  The argument was signaling before the lane began might cause other drivers to think you were going to take a right before the block began.  It was impossible to comply with the 100 ft. rule on that part of Lake Ave.  My client had come close.  She signaled when she stopped, waited at the red light, and then proceeded on her way.

      The Judge agreed my measurements were accurate and the DA’s were not.  The DA had wanted to measure from the middle of the previous intersection to the middle of the road at the top of the lane…..a distance of some 120 ft.  I won part of the fight, but then the Judge said if you can’t comply with the 100 ft. rule, you should signal as close to 100 ft. as possible.  The stop was upheld and the DWI case went forward.  It was resolved as a non-criminal traffic infraction (DWAI), but this stands as a case in which a smaller, common infraction led to a more serious charge.

Remember the 100 ft. rule.  Coming close to complying with this law doesn’t count.

CASE 2: “Size Matters.”  A client was stopped at 1:40 a.m. …prime time for DWIs….because he had a small metal sculpture of a deer’s head hanging from his rearview mirror and deer stickers on the back window of his pick-up truck.  Maybe he was an animal lover, so we will call him Mr. Vegan.  He was issued tickets for violating VTL § 375 (1)(b)….back window stickers….and § 375 (30) for the object hanging from his rearview mirror being an obstruction of his view.   The fine can go as high as $150 for a first offense and can include up to 30 days in jail.

Mr. Vegan was asked to perform field sobriety tests.  He complied and passed them all.  The NYS Trooper then asked him to take an alco-sensor breath test (hand-held devices used in the field).  Mr. Vegan refused.  He asserted that since he had passed the field tests, there was no basis to ask him to take a breath test.  The Trooper ticketed him for violating VTL § 1194 (1)(b) for his refusal to take the test.  No arrest for DWI was made.

The ticket for refusing the alco-sensor test was dismissed.  The Court agreed with my argument that absent reasonable cause to believe a driver is impaired, there should have been no request for Mr. Vegan to submit to a breath test in the field.  See: People v. Pecora, 123 Misc. 2d 259 (Qppinger Justice Court, 1984), and People v. Brockum, 88 AD2d 697 (3rd Dept., 1982).

The ticket for the front windshield being obstructed was also dismissed.  The Court agreed with my argument that the statute does not bar all stickers and objects near the front window, but only those which prevent the driver from having a “clear and full view” out the windshield.  Mr. Vegan’s sculpture of a deer’s head was small….less than an inch long.  It was hanging just a few inches from the mirror and did nothing to obstruct a clear view.  See: People v. O’Hare, 73 AD3d 812 (2nd Dept., 2010). 

Since VTL § 375 (1) (b) prohibits any and all stickers, regardless of what they do or don’t do to the view out the back window, that charge withstood my motion to dismiss.   Mr. Vegan pled guilty to the one charge, happy about the other two being dismissed. 

After Mr. Vegan’s case was over, I ran into an attorney who prides himself as being a prominent criminal/traffic defense attorney in Warren County.  On the back window of his car is the name of his firm and website.  I felt obliged to tell him his sticker was illegal.  He was not amused.  I guess ignorance is bliss until it is not.

I see stickers on the back windows of vehicles every day.  They are illegal….no exceptions unless they are allowed by specific regs from DMV.  I see objects hanging from rearview mirrors almost as much.   Does the air freshener or little bobble head prevent a clear and full view?  Why open the door to that argument?  

I watch to see how many people signal at or before the 100 ft. mark before they change lanes or turn.  Not too many.  You can probably get away with it most of the time, but there may come a time when you cannot.  Break the habit of ignoring these kind of statutes and you will be more likely to avoid unwanted contact with the minions of the law.

Sweat the small stuff because those minor infractions can lead to more serious charges and interaction with the police that is best avoided.