Is Failing to Signal When Turning Always a Violation of the Law?

Written by Gregory Monte.


“De minimis no curat lex [the law does not concern itself with trifles].”

Latin Expression


The “Traffic Law Nazi” Answer

If you are what I call a “Traffic Law Nazi,” then the answer to the question posed in the title to this blog post is a resounding …

“YES!”

In case you are not familiar with “Traffic Law Nazis,” I describe them as people who get “high and mighty” about drivers who safely travel over the speed limit by 10 mph.  They smile to themselves when they see those flashing police lights behind a car pulled over on the side of the road.  Likewise, these individuals can’t fathom how anyone could possibly roll through a stop sign safely – even when there is no one within 100 yards of the intersection.  They want the police to issue tickets to every single one of these lawbreakers.”

You can read a bit more of my commentary about these types of individuals, in two other posts:

The “Soup Nazi“ Approach to Traffic Tickets

The “Traffic Law Nazis” vs. The Reasonable Driver


The Correct Answer is a Bit More Subtle

Unlike “Traffic Law Nazis” who foist their opinions upon the rest of the driving population, I chose to rely on the “authorities” in matters like this – namely, judges.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court case Commonwealth v. Culver, 2017 is enlightening in this regard.  The judge in this case decided that Culver’s failure to signal was not a legitimate reason for the police officer to pull him over.

Trooper Zachariah’s affidavit of probable cause in this case contains the following summary of the incident:

“I was on routine patrol in the area of SR0001 north at State Farm Dr., . . ., when I observed [Culver’s vehicle] cross the center lane line and not drive as close as practical to the right curb. I then observed the vehicle make an illegal U-turn at State [F]arm drive. I then observed the vehicle move into the left lane without signaling and then make a right turn onto SR 0202 from the left lane without signaling. I then activated my emergency lights and stopped the vehicle at SR0202 just north of SR0001.”

The Commonwealth argued that the police officer had just cause to stop Culver, but the judge in this opinion disagreed:

“After the Defendant made the U-turn and proceeded south on Route 1, Trooper Zachariah said the Defendant made a lane change without first signaling. Again, this court found that these initial signal-less lane changes were not established by a fair preponderance of the evidence. Assuming arguendo that this did happen, the failure to signal when there are no other vehicles in the vicinity is a de minimis violation … After a thorough review of the record … we conclude that the Commonwealth is not entitled to relief …”


De Minimis Infractions

I wrote a blog post back in July about how courts sometimes acknowledge that “de minimis” violations of the law are not justifications for traffic stops: The De Minimis “Technicality” in Traffic Ticket Cases.  In that post, I discussed several Pennsylvania cases which supported this idea, but wanted to update that list because the case quoted above, Commonwealth v. Culver, provides a nice summary of the issue and includes two that I didn’t mention:

  • Commonwealth v. Gleason, 567 Pa. 111, 785 A.2d 983 (2011) – officer’s observation of a vehicle on a deserted four-lane highway crossing the solid white fog-line two or three times by six to eight inches over a distance of approximately one-quarter mile held insufficient to justify a traffic stop.

So, if a “Traffic Ticket Nazi” suggests that you are a terrible person because you don’t always follow all of the rules of the road to a “T,” maybe you can remind him that even the courts acknowledge that there is a possible gray area in certain cases.

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