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State v. Cook

Supreme Court of Vermont

November 30, 2018

State of Vermont
Kevin W. Cook

          On Appeal from Superior Court, Franklin Unit, Criminal Division Martin A. Maley, J.

          Heather J. Brochu, Franklin County Deputy State's Attorney, St. Albans, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Matthew Valerio, Defender General, and Dawn Seibert, Appellate Defender, Montpelier, for Defendant-Appellant.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          EATON, J.

         ¶ 1. Following his conditional guilty plea to driving under the influence, defendant Kevin Cook appeals the trial court's denial of his motion to dismiss, in which he argued that his failure to signal a turn was not illegal under the circumstances and thus did not provide a reasonable, articulable suspicion for the arresting officer to stop his vehicle.[1] We affirm.

         ¶ 2. The facts are not contested. Shortly after midnight on December 4, 2016, defendant was driving east on Hoyt Street in St. Albans and approached a "T" intersection where Hoyt and Main Streets meet. Hoyt Street ends where it meets Main Street, and it has designated right- and left-turn lanes for drivers approaching the Main Street intersection. There is a stop sign at the intersection for cars using Hoyt Street. Preparing to turn right onto Main Street, defendant drove into the right-turn-only lane and stopped at the stop sign. At that time, a police officer pulled onto Hoyt Street and noticed defendant's car stopped at the intersection without its turn signal on. The officer watched defendant make the right turn onto Main Street without signaling and stopped defendant's car for that reason. During the traffic stop, the officer smelled alcohol on defendant and conducted field-sobriety tests. Ultimately, defendant was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).

         ¶ 3. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the DUI charge. He argued that the officer had no grounds to stop him because, although Vermont law requires drivers to signal their intention to turn under 23 V.S.A. §§ 1064 and 1065, drivers are not required to put on their turn signal when there is only one legal turning maneuver possible-such as turning right in a right-turn-only lane. In a brief entry order, the trial court denied defendant's motion, citing this Court's decision in State v. Harris, 2009 VT 73, 186 Vt. 225, 980 A.2d 785. On appeal, defendant argues that he did not violate the law when he followed his lane along its natural course without using his turn signal, and thus there was no basis to stop him. The State argues that, regardless of a car's position on the road, drivers are not relieved of their obligation to use a turn signal; therefore, the officer was authorized to stop defendant for committing a motor-vehicle violation.

         ¶ 4. "In reviewing a denial of a motion to suppress, we apply a deferential standard of review to the trial court's findings of fact, and we review the court's legal conclusions de novo." State v. Fletcher, 2010 VT 27, ¶ 8, 187 Vt. 632, 996 A.2d 213 (mem.). Defendant does not challenge the trial court's brief factual determinations, which included that defendant's car made a right-hand turn at the intersection and changed directions from east to south onto a different street without using his directional signal. Rather, he contests only the court's legal conclusions. "Our examination of those legal conclusions is therefore nondeferential and plenary." State v. Bryant, 2008VT 39, ¶ 9, 183 Vt. 355, 950 A.2d 467.

         ¶ 5. Vermont motor vehicle statutes 23 V.S.A. §§ 1064 and 1065 govern drivers' obligation to signal when turning and moving on the road. In relevant part, § 1065 provides that "[a] right or left turn shall not be made without first giving a signal of intention either by hand or by signal in accordance with section 1064." 23 V.S.A. § 1065(a) (emphases added). Section 1064 explains that "[t]he signals provided for in section 1065 . . . shall be used to indicate an intention to turn, change lanes, or start from a parked position," id. § 1064(e) (emphasis added), and instructs that "[b]efore changing direction or materially slackening speed, a driver shall give warning of his or her intention . . . as provided in section 1065 . . . or with a mechanical or lighting device." Id. § 1064(a) (emphasis added). Additionally, § 1064 states that "[a] signal of intention to turn right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning." Id. § 1064(d) (emphasis added). Here, we are charged with construing these provisions to determine whether defendant was required to signal prior to turning right onto Main Street, even though he was in a right-turn-only lane. We conclude that he was.

         ¶ 6. In construing statutes, our goal is to implement the intent of the Legislature. Harris, 2009VT 73, ¶ 5. In doing so, we assume the Legislature intended the plain, ordinary meaning of the language used. Id. If the legislative intent is clear from the language at issue, then the Court's "inquiry is at an end, and we enforce the statute according to its plain terms." Fletcher, 2010 VT 27, ¶ 10. Defendant argues for an exception to the signaling requirement by reading into the statutes language that is not there. Neither § 1064 nor § 1065 contain any express exception to eliminate the requirement for use of a turn signal when a car is positioned in a turn-only lane. Rather, the statutory language consistently mandates the use of a signal whenever a driver effects a turn, using the word "shall." See 23 V.S.A. §§ 1064(a), (d), (e), 1065(a). We do not find the language of these statutes unclear or ambiguous. As such, we conclude that, based on the plain language of the statute, defendant was required to signal prior to executing a right-hand turn.

         ¶ 7. We have had occasion to consider the requirements of our turn-signal statutes several times in recent years, and this body of caselaw supports our conclusion here. First, a change in direction, such as the ninety-degree change in direction defendant took from Hoyt Street onto Main Street here, may indicate that the driver is turning and that a signal is required under §§ 1064 and 1065. See id. § 1064(a) (requiring driver to signal "[b]efore changing direction"); see also Harris, 2009 VT 73, ¶ 8 (remanding for trial court to consider relevant evidence as to whether vehicle exiting rotary had "changed directions," effecting turn, thereby triggering turn-signal requirement of § 1064(a)).

         ¶ 8. Next, in State v. Fletcher, we explained that turn signal requirements under § 1064 apply regardless of traffic conditions. 2010 VT 27, ¶¶ 11-13. In that case, we held that an officer had a reasonable, articulable suspicion to stop a motorist who did not activate her turn signal at three stop signs until she had come to a stop at the intersections, in violation of § 1064(d)'s requirement that a signal must be used for at least 100 feet before an intersection. Id. ¶ 13. In so doing, we rejected her contention that § 1064(d)'s "when required" language meant that turn signals were only required when necessitated by traffic conditions. Id. ¶ 11. On the contrary, we held that the use of turn signals is required 100 feet from turning, regardless of traffic conditions. Id.

         ¶ 9. Finally, and most recently, in State v. Hutchins, we held that continuing on the natural arc of a road did not trigger the turn-signal requirement. 2015 VT 38, ¶ 11, 198 Vt. 431, 114 A.3d 906 ("[A] vehicle following a circular or arcing roadway would not need to activate a turn signal to continue around that arc because it is the natural course of the road. Only upon departing from that natural course-and thus changing direction-would a 'turn' occur."). In Hutchins, the presence of a bisecting road did not change the trajectory of a car ...

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