If you’re carrying a firearm and contraband in your car, better stay in your lane.

The PA Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Cephus, No. 1275 EDA 2018 (Pa. Super. 04/24/2019), holding that the trial court did not err in finding the police had probable cause to stop Cephus’ vehicle after police observed the vehicle fail to maintain its lane on multiple occasions. 

Cephus was convicted of Persons Not to Possess a Firearm, Firearms not to be Carried Without a License, Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, and Driving on Roadways Laned for Traffic. He filed an appeal to the Superior Court, arguing that the lower court erred in denying his motion to suppress evidence from a stop of his vehicle that was, according to him, not justified by the requisite suspicion. 

Troopers Beyer and Musser observed Cephus’ car crossing over the center dotted line dividing the two westbound lanes of Route 422. After noticing the driver of the vehicle was having trouble maintaining his lane, Trooper Beyer activated the patrol car’s dash camera to record and monitor the Cadillac’s movements. 

When asked how many times he saw Cephus’ car cross the center line, Trooper Beyer responded “I believe it was three times.” The dash camera footage showed the Cadillac crossing over the center line three times in a twenty-second period, in which both of its driver’s side tires consistently remained over the center line. Trooper Beyer estimated that the Cadillac traveled “a couple hundred yards” in the time the dash camera was recording, but indicated he was unsure of the actual distance. Trooper Beyer could not recall how many times he observed the Cadillac cross over the center line before the dash camera was activated; but, the Superior Court concluded it would had to be at least one time before the dash cam was activated. 

The Superior Court set forth the general standard for a stop based on an observed violation of the vehicle code or otherwise non-investigable offense, stating that, in such cases, an officer must have probable cause to make a constitutional vehicle stop. Mere reasonable suspicion will not justify a vehicle stop when the driver’s detention cannot serve an investigatory purpose relevant to the suspected violation. 

The Superior Court then noted that, in this case, Trooper Beyer initiated a traffic stop based on Cephus’ disregard for traffic lanes pursuant to Section 3309(1) of the Motor Vehicle Code, “Driving on Roadways Laned for Traffic,” which provides that “a vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety.”

Previously, the Court found that an officer must have probable cause to justify a traffic stop for a violation of Section 3309(1). 

With that in mind, the Court concluded that the record supported an inference that Trooper Beyer observed Cephus’ vehicle cross over the center line at least four times in a brief period of time. It also emphasized the fact that Cephus’ repeated movement over the center line dividing two lanes of traffic was a more serious safety concern than a vehicle crossing the berm line away from traffic. 

Lastly, the Superior Court made it a point to “recognize the difficulties law enforcement officers face in deciding whether to stop a vehicle for disregarding defined lanes of traffic, as our decisions analyzing the validity stops based on a violation of ‘Driving on Roadways Laned for Traffic’ have been inconsistent.” And, although also recognizing that “an individual does not lose all reasonable expectation of privacy in traveling in an automobile, officers must be given a sufficient degree of latitude to further the Commonwealth’s interest of enforcing rules and regulations that were designed to promote safety of all who travel on the roads of the Commonwealth.”