The De Minimis “Technicality” in Traffic Ticket Cases.

Written by Gregory Monte.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Famous philosophical thought experiment.

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

Latin Expression

Important Note

This post is specifically geared to Pennsylvania, but other states also acknowledge “de minimis” infractions of the law. I didn’t check all states, but I did notice that New Jersey, Maine, Ohio and Hawaii absolutely include some form of this technicality in their codes. In fact, the link for Ohio (there are others, but I just included this one) is to an actual court case where the opinion in State v. Adams (2017) stated:

Few of us drive any appreciable distance without committing traffic violations that could properly be characterized as “de minimis.” By themselves, then, traffic violations of a de minimis nature are not indicative of impaired driving. Otherwise, virtually every motorist could reasonably be suspected of impaired driving, since virtually every motorist, driving a distance of several miles, will fail to signal a lane change; touch, or even slightly cross, a line marking a lane; or exceed the speed limit slightly.”

My “Two Cents” Before We Get Started

To my way of thinking, most traffic tickets for speeding, “rolling through” a stop sign, etc. should be considered “de minimis.”  They are harmless violations of statute with absolutely no consequences for anyone on the road.  But my opinion isn’t worth much if judges don’t agree with my line of thought.

While my first research attempt didn’t find any “de minimis” cases specifically supporting a dismissal of a speeding/stop sign ticket based on this technicality, I did find some excellent examples which discuss this issue in regards to violations of the Motor Vehicle Code.  I think that the circumstances surrounding these infractions could possibly be applied to speeding/stop sign situations as well, so I felt that it was worth looking into them and writing about them.

De Minimis Definitely Applies to Motor Vehicle Citations – Example #1

At first, I was going to do these in order of date, but then decided that it was better to start off with an example from the PA Supreme Court first.  If this highest court acknowledges de minimis infractions, then they most certainly would have applicability.

So, first up is Com. v. Gleason, 785 A. 2d 983 – Pa: Supreme Court 2001.

The opinion in this case summarizes the situation quite well:

“We granted allowance of appeal in this case to determine whether an arresting officer possesses reasonable and articulable grounds to believe that a licensee violated a provision of the Vehicle Code, warranting the stop of the licensee’s car, based upon his observations that the licensee’s vehicle crossed the berm line by six to eight inches on two occasions for a period of a second or two over a distance of approximately one quarter of a mile. The Superior Court held that under these circumstances, an arresting officer is justified in stopping the licensee.”

That quote only describes one aspect of the “de minimis” circumstances surrounding the traffic citation that was issued.  The police officer stopped Gleason’s vehicle because he determined that a violation of Title 75, Section 3309(1) of the Vehicle Code had occurred (“Driving within a single lane”).

But it also important to realize that this alleged violation occurred “in the early morning hours” and that “there were no other vehicles on the roadway.”

While the Superior Court said that this stop was justified, the Supreme Court didn’t see it this way at all:

“We cannot agree … we conclude that the Superior Court erred in holding that Officer Rosato was justified in stopping Appellant’s vehicle under the facts of this case … Accordingly, we reverse the order of the Superior Court …”

I have to acknowledge that the Supreme Court never actually used the term “de minimis,” but given the circumstances described in this case, that is exactly what it was suggesting.

De Minimis Definitely Applies to Motor Vehicle Citations – Example #2

Now I will move on to the other cases that I found starting with the most recent and moving backwards.  In Commonwealth v. Kingsley, Pa: Superior Court 2018, the judge specifically uses the term “de minimis” in the following excerpt from his decision:

“Here, as discussed above, the Commonwealth established Kingsley did not stop at the stop signs, and the stop signs were properly installed. This violation was not within a customary license or tolerance of Section 3323. Further, the conduct threatened the harm sought to be prevented, and there are no “other extenuations” to justify finding that the offense was de minimis. Therefore, the court did not err in failing to dismiss the case.”

Notice that the judge implies that if the circumstances had been shown to be “de minimis,” this might have justified the failure to stop as required.

De Minimis Definitely Applies to Motor Vehicle Citations – Example #3

In Commonwealth v. Culver, Pa: Superior Court 2017, Trooper Zachariah’s affidavit of probable cause contains the following summary of the incident.  Pay particular attention to the claim that Culver failed to signal:

“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 Definitely Applies to Motor Vehicle Citations – Example #4

Commonwealth v. Pitzer, Pa: Superior Court 2017 is another very recent case which discusses a potential violation of the Vehicle Code that would be considered de minimis:

“Instantly, Trooper Thierwechter observed a vehicle traveling entirely on the left side of a marked roadway. Subsequent pursuit revealed the vehicle to be weaving within its lane of travel. Independently, the weaving within the lane was de minimis at best and, standing alone, insufficient to objectively establish a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.”

Pitzer ultimately lost this case, but not because of the possible de minimis violation of weaving within his lane.  Instead, he lost because he traveled completely in the left side of a road.  But even there, the Superior Court judge agreed that traveling on the left side of the road may very well be considered de minimis depending on the circumstances [i.e. an isolated country road]:

Unquestionably, there are a variety of innocent explanations for the observed conduct[,] including the lack of traffic on an isolated country road or the de minimis nature of the observations under the circumstances in which they occurred. Nevertheless, one would not expect under normal circumstances to observe a vehicle traveling entirely in the wrong lane of travel for no apparent reason. While there are certainly explanations for the conduct, there is also a reasonable articulable basis for Trooper Thierwechter to stop the vehicle for further investigation as to the legality of those reasons.”

De Minimis Definitely Applies to Motor Vehicle Citations – Example #5

In Commonwealth v. Sheridan, Pa: Superior Court 2015 the judge also suggests that a de minimis argument might have merit.  Unfortunately, in this particular case, the Superior Court was not able to judge this possible fact because it is only allowed to consider un-contradicted evidence from the lower court:

“Moreover, contrary to Sheridan’s argument that his actions were de minimis, we reiterate that because the Commonwealth prevailed, “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.” Jones, 121 A.3d at 526. Accordingly, the trial court properly denied Sheridan’s motion to suppress. Therefore, we affirm the judgment of sentence.”

De Minimis Definitely Applies to Motor Vehicle Citations – Example #6

This is an old case but is interesting because the judge very specifically talks about the reasoning behind the de minimis rule.  Commonwealth v. Williams, 41 Pa. D. & C. 2d 516 – Pa: Court of Common Pleas 1966:

“Viewing Williams’ act with common sense, mindful of the statutes and the need for highway safety, yet aware that in all things a fastidious proportion should be maintained, I cannot say that his offense shocks me. I can see no close connection between his oversight here and the preservation of life on the highways, or the good order in society. Therefore, it seems right under the circumstances to give some weight to the old maxim “de minimis non curat lex and sustain his appeal.”

WTF??? De Minimis DOESN’T Apply to Traffic Tickets???

Those six examples clearly point to the reality that de minimis violations do apply to traffic ticket cases.  However, I did find two recent case which seems to contradict them all.  The first is Commonwealth v. Pearson, Pa: Superior Court 2017.  In this case, Pearson was driving up a steep mountain road and travelled in the left lane at various places in order to maintain his speed.  Because of the potential danger he might have caused to people driving down the road, this is clearly an example where the infraction was not de minimis.  But the judge didn’t let it go at that.  Maybe I am reading this wrong, but he seems to imply that judges are not allowed to sanction offenses even if they are “de minimis:”

 “While Appellant also failed to support with relevant legal authority the component of his argument relating to the nature of the transgression, i.e., whether he left the lane in an unsafe manner, we are cognizant that our jurisprudence would not permit sanction for a de minimis offense. Thus, we address the merits of this contention and reject it.”

And in another recent case, Com. v. Ibrahim, 127 A. 3d 819 – Pa: Superior Court 2015, the judge overruled the trial court (“… the violation that Officer Marrero observed was de minimis …”), stating that driving a bike the wrong way on a one-way street, even for a couple of feet (which seems pretty harmless) was not “de minimis.”

So What Exactly Does De Minimis Mean?

The statute which defines a de minimis violation in Pennsylvania is Title 18, Section 312.  Unfortunately, when you read this, it doesn’t really add any clarity to the situation:

(a)  General rule -The court shall dismiss a prosecution if, having regard to the nature of the conduct charged to constitute an offense and the nature of the attendant circumstances, it finds that the conduct of the defendant:

(1)  was within a customary license or tolerance, neither expressly negatived by the person whose interest was infringed nor inconsistent with the purpose of the law defining the offense;

(2)  did not actually cause or threaten the harm or evil sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense or did so only to an extent too trivial to warrant the condemnation of conviction; or

(3)  presents such other extenuations that it cannot reasonably be regarded as envisaged by the General Assembly or other authority in forbidding the offense.

How You Can Possibly Use the De Minimis Technicality

But I found a case, Scurfield Coal, Inc. v. Com., 582 A. 2d 694 – Pa: Commonwealth Court 1990, which actually contains some discussion of how this technicality might be used.  When the Pennsylvania legislature decided to include this section in Title 18, it made the following Official Comment:

“The purpose of this section [Title 18, Section 312] is to remove petty infractions from the category of criminal conduct …”

And in another case, Pennsylvania v. Moses, 350 Pa. Superior Ct. 231, 504 A.2d 330 (1986), the judge indicated the following:

” It has also been held that the Pennsylvania legislature enacted Section 312 ‘to apply to situations in which there was no harm done to either [a] victim or society.’”

The Scurfield opinion goes on to show exactly how the company DID violate all three of the items indicated in the General Rule for dismissing a case as de minimis.  If I were going to use this “technicality,” I would contrast the conditions surrounding my traffic ticket with the obvious violations committed by Scurfield Coal.

After all, how on earth does speeding on an unoccupied road or “rolling through” a stop sign when there is no one around for several hundred feet do any harm to “either [a] victim or society?”

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