One Tire, One Time: The Supreme Court of Missouri's Expansion of Reasonable Suspicion: State v. Smith.

AuthorHawley, Luke A.

    All drivers are familiar with the white "fog line" (1) that separates the road from the shoulder. What Missouri drivers may not be familiar with is the fact that they can be pulled over any time one of their tires cross that line. This fact may surprise Missouri drivers, in part because it has only recently become the law. While fog line infractions may seem trivial on their face, the traffic stops that result from fog line infractions trigger significant constitutional repercussions.

    The Constitution of the United States provides that all people have certain, fundamental freedoms, and these freedoms include protection from unreasonable searches and seizures. (2) While the Fourth Amendment has been read to require that police officers obtain warrants before searching or seizing personal property, (3) courts have carved out exceptions to this requirement when certain criteria are met. (4) One such exception allows for police officers to stop drivers when the officer reasonably suspects that the driver has broken the law. (5) This "reasonable suspicion" standard is often contested by criminal defendants who argue that they should not be found guilty of their particular offense because the arresting officer was not justified in stopping them in the first place. (6)

    Throughout the country, criminal defendants have often succeeded in arguing a lack of reasonable suspicion in "fog line" cases. (7) Criminal defendants and legal scholars alike reason that because state statutes typically do not criminalize brief deviations over the fog line, police officers lack reasonable suspicion when they base traffic stops on fog line violations alone. (8) Missouri courts in particular have "consistently ruled in favor of defendants who were stopped based on alleged fog line [sic] violations." (9) In fact, Missouri courts have regularly held that police officers lacked the reasonable suspicion required by the Fourth Amendment even when drivers crossed the fog line more than once. (10)

    In State v. Smith, the Supreme Court of Missouri reviewed the trial court's finding that one single crossing of the "fog line" by one tire provides sufficient probable cause for an officer to conduct a traffic stop. (11) The majority of the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the traffic stop was justified. (12) A dissent by Judge Stith argued that the trial court erred by denying the defendant's motion to suppress evidence obtained through the traffic stop, which the dissent characterized as unconstitutional. (13) Part II of this Note examines the underlying facts of Smith. Part III analyzes the legal background of reasonable suspicion, focusing in particular on both the constitutional provisions relating to reasonable suspicion and the Missouri precedent that the Supreme Court of Missouri was bound by. Part IV discusses the Supreme Court of Missouri's decision in Smith. Finally, Part V argues that the majority's opinion went against the great weight of Missouri precedent in holding that fog line infractions are sufficient probable cause for traffic stops.


    On January 8, 2017, Sergeant Steven Johnson of the Missouri State Highway Patrol stopped Anthony Smith on the side of Interstate 70 in Montgomery County, Missouri. (14) According to Johnson's testimony, Johnson noticed Smith's vehicle because Smith activated his turn signal, began to change lanes, and then turned his signal off before completing the lane change. (15) While observing Smith's vehicle, Johnson saw either both of the passenger side tires or one of the passenger side tires cross over the "fog line." (16) According to Johnson's testimony, Smith's tire crossed over the white line on the right side of the roadway such that there was pavement between the fog line and the tires. (17) Johnson stated that the tire was "no longer within the lane of traffic." (18) By all accounts, Smith's passenger-side tire crossed over the fog line one single time. (19)

    After seeing Smith's tire cross over the fog line, Johnson pulled Smith over to the side of Interstate 70. (20) During the traffic stop, Johnson smelled marijuana coming from the inside of the vehicle. (21) As a result, Johnson asked Smith if he had been smoking marijuana. (22) Smith responded that he had smoked marijuana inside the vehicle during the previous week. (23) Smith also stated that there was marijuana in the vehicle. (24) Johnson searched the vehicle and found marijuana. (25) Specifically, Johnson found four marijuana cigarettes in a backpack in the passenger compartment, as well as approximately four pounds of marijuana in Smith's trunk. (26)

    Smith was charged with felony possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. (27) Prior to trial, Smith filed a motion to suppress physical evidence obtained from the search of his vehicle, as well as his own incriminating statements. (28) In support of his motion, Smith argued that "'[m]erely crossing the fog line is insufficient probable cause to initiate a traffic stop in Missouri, '[l]egally signaling an intention to change lanes creates no reasonable suspicion or probable cause'" sufficient for detention. (29)

    The circuit court denied Smith's motion to suppress. (30) The case proceeded to a bench trial for one count of possession of a controlled substance in violation of Section 579.015 of the Missouri Revised Statutes, and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia in violation of Section 579.074. (31) The trial judge found Smith guilty on both counts and sentenced him to seven years in prison for the first charge. (32) The sentence was suspended, and Smith was placed on probation for five years. (33) The trial court also imposed a $100 fine for Smith's possession of drug paraphernalia. (34)

    Smith appealed his conviction, claiming that the circuit court erred in denying his motion to suppress. (35) Smith argued that Sgt. Johnson's traffic stop was unreasonable and constituted a violation of both his Fourth Amendment rights under the United States Constitution and his Section 15 rights under the Missouri Constitution. (36) Smith further argued on appeal that all evidence against him was illegally obtained, and the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine should have prohibited the drugs and drug paraphernalia from being admitted. (37) The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District affirmed the trial court's decision without filing an extended opinion stating the principles of law applicable to the case. (38) The Supreme Court of Missouri granted transfer and affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that the officer had sufficient probable cause to stop Smith based solely on Smith's fog line transgression. (39)


    Over the years, federal and state courts have articulated various justifications for when officers can stop a vehicle. First, this Part discusses the Constitutions of both the United States and the State of Missouri in an attempt to provide some background into motorists' constitutional rights, with special attention paid to the development of the "reasonable suspicion" standard. Next, this Part introduces Missouri caselaw, highlighting cases from both the Supreme Court of Missouri and the Missouri Court of Appeals that discuss whether a vehicle crossing over the "fog line" is sufficient to justify a traffic stop.

    1. Constitutional Background and Reasonable Suspicion

      The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees the right of the people to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. (40) The Fourth Amendment states that "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated..." (41) The Fourth Amendment goes on to state that "no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." (42) Section 15 of the Missouri Constitution largely mirrors the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, also providing that people should remain free from unreasonable searches and seizures. (43) Additionally, the Supreme Court of Missouri has held that the same analysis applies to cases under the Missouri Constitution as cases under the Fourth Amendment. (44)

      Historically, the Supreme Court of the United States read the Fourth Amendment to mean that searches without warrants should be presumed unlawful unless the facts "unquestionably" show the government had probable cause. (45) Justice Jackson, writing for the United States Supreme Court in Johnson v. United States, articulated the policy underlying the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement:

      The point of the Fourth Amendment, which often is not grasped by zealous officers, is not that it denies law enforcement the support of the usual inferences which reasonable men draw from evidence. Its protection consists in requiring that those inferences be drawn from a neutral and detached magistrate instead of being judged by the officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime. Any assumption that evidence sufficient to support a magistrate's disinterested determination to issue such a search warrant will justify the officers in making a search without a warrant would reduce the Amendment to a nullity and leave the people's homes secure only in the discretion of police officers.... When the right of privacy must reasonably yield to the right of search is, as a rule, to be decided by a judicial officer, not a policeman or a government enforcement agent. (46) The Court has stated that this policy reflects the values of the framers, noting that the authors of the Constitution fought for "a right of personal security against the arbitrary intrusions by official power." (47) Again and again, the Court has emphasized that "[n]o right is...

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