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Commonwealth v. Wright

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

September 19, 2013



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence, November 14, 2012, in the Court of Common Pleas of Potter County Criminal Division at No. CP-53-CR-0000147-2011




Mark Andrew Wright appeals from the judgment of sentence entered November 14, 2012, following his conviction of driving under the influence (DUI)-general impairment, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3802(a)(1), and failure to signal a turn, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3334(b). The sole issue presented challenges the denial of appellant's motion to suppress. We affirm.

The relevant facts presented at the suppression hearing, as summarized by the trial court, are as follows:

On July 8, 2011, Officer William Wenzel of the Coudersport Borough Police Department was on routine patrol in the Borough of Coudersport. At approximately 1:10 a.m. on said date, Officer Wenzel was standing near the Western entrance to the Sheetz Convenient [sic] Store with Chief Brian Phelps and several State Troopers engaged in casual conversation. The Sheetz Store is located in the Borough of Coudersport at the intersection of South Main Street and Chestnut Street. At or about 1:10 a.m. [appellant] was operating a Ford Mustang automobile when he exited the McDonald's Restaurant turning South on South Main Street. Thereafter, [appellant] traveled toward the intersection of South Main and Chestnut Streets, which said intersection is controlled by an electronic traffic control device.
Just prior to the intersection, the South bound lane of South Main Street, [sic] separates into two lanes. The inside lane is for traffic intending to continue straight through the traffic light continuing on South Main Street. The outside lane is used exclusively for traffic making a right hand turn at the intersection and onto the West bound lane of Chestnut Street. This outside lane is controlled by a green arrow on the traffic light directing all traffic in that lane to turn right.
The testimony of [appellant] is that after he exited the McDonald's parking lot and just prior to entering the right bound lane at the aforesaid intersection, he activated his right turn signal indicating his desire to turn right. [Appellant] also testified that he deactivated his turn signal after he entered the lane; but did not reactivate the signal at the intersection before turning right onto East Chestnut Street. The distance from the exit of McDonald's to the intersection is approximately 350 feet.
The testimony of Officer Wenzel is that he heard [appellant's] vehicle engine racing before he saw [appellant's] vehicle. Thereafter, the Officer observed [appellant] approach the intersection without activating his right turn signal and then turned right onto Chestnut Street. This observation is consistent with the testimony of [appellant], that no right turn signal was implemented just prior to and during the right hand turn onto Chestnut Street. The Officer also testified that [appellant] was traveling 35 miles per hour in a speed zone of 25 miles per hour and [appellant's] tires squealed through the intersection. Officer Wenzel testified further that he observed [appellant] accelerate and proceed West on Chestnut Street. Officer Wenzel then entered his patrol car and followed [appellant] to the Westgate Motel located at the edge of the Borough. [Appellant] told Officer Wenzel he had not consumed any alcoholic beverages although [appellant] later recanted that statement and reported that he had been drinking earlier at the Motel.

Trial court opinion, 2/8/12 at 1-3 (footnote omitted).

Appellant was arrested and charged with DUI, reckless driving, and failure to signal. He filed a motion to suppress challenging the propriety of the stop. A hearing was held on February 3, 2012; and on February 8, 2012, the motion was denied. A bench trial was held on August 30, 2012. Appellant was convicted of DUI and failure to signal; the court found him not guilty of reckless driving. On November 14, 2012, appellant was sentenced to serve a term of imprisonment of not less than five days nor more than six months. A timely notice of appeal was filed, and appellant complied with the trial court's order to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P., Rule 1925(b), 42 Pa.C.S.A.

Herein, appellant presents the following issue:

Whether or not the trial court erred in concluding that the police officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant in a right-hand turn lane which was clearly illuminated by a traffic signal device indicating a green arrow for the right hand lane, which was a right turn only lane?

Appellant's brief at 5.

Because appellant challenges an order that denied his motion to suppress, we review his claims pursuant to the following standard and scope of review:

Our standard of review in addressing a challenge to the denial of a suppression motion is limited to determining whether the suppression court's factual findings are supported by the record and whether the legal conclusions drawn from those facts are correct. Because the Commonwealth prevailed before the suppression court, we may consider only the evidence of the Commonwealth and so much of the evidence for the defense as remains uncontradicted when read in the context of the record as a whole. Where the suppression court's factual findings are supported by the record, we are bound by these findings and may reverse only if the court's legal conclusions are erroneous. Where, as here, the appeal of the determination of the suppression court turns on allegations of legal error, the suppression court's legal conclusions are not binding on an appellate court, whose duty it is to determine if the suppression court properly applied the law to the facts. Thus, the conclusions of law of the courts below are subject to our plenary review.

Commonwealth v. McAdoo, 46 A.3d 781, 783-784 (Pa.Super. 2012) (citations omitted).

Appellant argues that the arresting officer did not have reasonable suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity when he was seized. A police officer has the authority to stop a vehicle when he or she has reasonable suspicion that a violation of the vehicle code has taken place, for the purpose of obtaining necessary information to enforce the provisions of the code. 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 6308(b). However, if the violation is such that it requires no additional investigation, the officer must have probable cause to initiate the stop. Commonwealth v. Feczko, 10 A.3d 1285, 1291 (Pa.Super. 2010), appeal denied, 611 Pa. 650, 25 A.3d 327 (2011). As further investigation would not help to establish whether appellant turned without using the required signal, Officer Wenzel was required to have probable cause to initiate the stop.[1]

Again, the officer stopped appellant for failing to signal when he turned right onto East Chestnut Street. Appellant conceded that he did not use his turn signal but argues that, given his position in a right-turn-only lane, the statute did not apply. We disagree.

The statute governing the use of signals provides in pertinent part as follows:

§ 3334. Turning movements and required signals

(a) General rule.--Upon a roadway no person shall turn a vehicle or move from one traffic lane to another or enter the traffic stream from a parked position unless and until the movement can be made with reasonable safety nor without giving an appropriate signal in the manner provided in this section.
(b) Signals on turning and starting.--At speeds of less than 35 miles per hour, an appropriate signal of intention to turn right or left shall be given continuously during not less than the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning. The signal shall be given during not less than the last 300 feet at speeds in excess of 35 miles per hour. The signal shall also be given prior to entry of the vehicle into the traffic stream from a parked position.
(c) Limitations on use of certain signals.--The signals required on vehicles by section 3335(b) (relating to signals by hand and arm or signal lamps) shall not be flashed on one side only on a disabled vehicle, flashed as a courtesy or "do pass" signal to operators of other vehicles approaching from the rear, nor be flashed on one side only of a parked vehicle except as may be necessary for compliance with this section.
(d) Discontinuing turn signals.--Turn signals shall be discontinued immediately after completing the turn or movement from one traffic lane to another traffic lane.

75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3334.

Appellant acknowledges that his exact argument was disposed of recently in Commonwealth v. Brown, 64 A.3d 1101 (Pa.Super. 2013). The Brown court succinctly stated, "The statute requires use of a signal lamp or a hand signal when making a turn, and provides no exception for turns made from a lane designated for turns only." Id. at 1106. Thus, the officer was justified in initiating the traffic stop.

Appellant attempts to distinguish the facts of his case from Brown. He argues, "there is an intersection traffic control device clearly illuminating that a turn must be made from the right-hand only traffic lane." (Appellant's brief at 9.) Thus, unlike Brown, any vehicle would have clear notice that appellant was turning right, and the purpose of the statute was satisfied. (Id. at 9-10.) Appellant also reminds this court that he used his right turn signal when entering this lane of travel. (Id. at 11.)

Appellant claims that Oregon v. Padilla, 850 P.2d 372 (Or.Ct.App.), rev. denied, 317 Or. 584, 859 P.2d 541 (1993), while not binding, is instructive. In Padilla, the defendant also failed to activate his signal when making a turn from a turn-only lane into the proper lane. The court found that the purpose of the statute at issue was safety and such purpose was not furthered by requiring a signal under these circumstances. "[The] defendant did not deviate from the presumed course of travel and was not required to signal." Id. at 373.

We find appellant's argument unpersuasive. As stated in Brown, the statute specifically provides that no person shall turn a vehicle at an intersection without giving an appropriate signal. The statute provides no exception to this requirement, and absent legislative direction, we decline to create an exception that the legislature did not see fit to include. Moreover, applying the plain language of the section does not lead to an absurd result. Rather, it provides a clear, bright-line rule by which drivers of motor vehicles and police officers charged with enforcing the laws may operate. If a turn is made from one street onto another, a signal is required. Because appellant committed a traffic violation by failing to signal before his turn, the officer was authorized to make a traffic stop.

Judgment of sentence affirmed.

Judgment Entered.


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