Missouri's Foggy Fog Line Law

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

When told that crossing the fog line is not sufficient grounds for a traffic stop in Missouri, most people will answer, "What is the fog line?" Though the term may be unfamiliar to many, anyone who drives would recognize the object to which it refers--the white or yellow line on the side of the road that indicates the end of the lane and the beginning of the shoulder. (1) Fog lines have been the subject of much civil and criminal litigation in Missouri, at both the state and federal levels. (2) Crossing a fog line is a traffic violation for failing to stay in the correct lane, and law enforcement officers have frequently initiated traffic stops based on such violations. (3) Yet case law within Missouri has created a strange rule regarding crossing the fog line. Federal law clearly states that any observation of a traffic law violation is sufficient for a stop, (4) and Missouri case law has likewise held for many years that any traffic law violation is sufficient cause for a law enforcement officer to initiate a traffic stop. (5) However, Missouri courts have also insisted that crossing the fog line is not sufficient cause to stop a vehicle. (6) The combined effect of these holdings puts Missouri state law in an internally inconsistent position how can courts insist that observing a law violation is not sufficient cause for a law enforcement officer to reasonably suspect a law violation, and therefore initiate a traffic stop?

The possible explanations for these holdings regarding fog line violations are many, but none are satisfactory. The Missouri Court of Appeals may be trying to create a class of violations that are considered so minor that a driver may not be stopped for them. (7) Alternatively, the court may believe it is acceptable to stop an individual for a fog line violation but it intends to limit the offenses for which an officer may ticket that individual. (8) Finally, the court may be making an analytical mistake by confusing reasonable suspicion of a lane violation with reasonable suspicion for other crimes, such as driving while intoxicated. (9) No matter the explanation, the mere fact that Missouri's appellate court has taken this position regarding fog line violations has a broader implication: the court has decided that failure to maintain a right hand lane, a misdemeanor crime, is unenforceable if violated in the specific manner of crossing the fog line. The Missouri Court of Appeals' fog line rulings are at odds with federal courts' interpretation of Missouri law, and possibly disregard precedent from the Supreme Court of Missouri with regard to reasonable suspicion of fog line violations. (10) Application of the appellate court's pronounced fog line rule is confusing as a practical matter, and this confusion makes guidance for law enforcement officers in this area unclear. (11) For these reasons, it is an anomaly in the law that deserves to be examined and altered.

II. Legal Background

The "fog line" is the solid line that marks the end of the road and the beginning of the shoulder. (12) Fog lines generally appear on both the left and right sides of the roadway and are usually white or yellow in color. (13) Missouri Revised Statutes section 304.015 makes driving on or over the fog line a traffic violation. (14) The pertinent part reads,

   All vehicles in motion upon a highway having two or more lanes of
   traffic proceeding in the same direction shall be driven in the
   right-hand lane except when overtaking and passing another vehicle
   or when preparing to make a proper left turn or when otherwise
   directed by traffic markings, signs or signals. (15)

Courts have interpreted this statute to mean that, unless one falls into an exception, failure to stay within the lines demarcating the right hand lane is a violation of the statute. (16) Under the statute, driving on or over the fog line, or any other line demarcating the end of the lane, is a law violation. …