Written by Gregory Monte.
The most effective way to beat a traffic ticket is to find case law in your state where a defendant wins in circumstances similar to yours. This post will show you how I would approach a turn signal ticket in North Carolina using this method, but the strategy applies to every kind of traffic citation in all states.
Ambiguities Lead to “Technicalities”
In a previous post I discussed the fact that most states require motorists to signal even if no other car is anywhere near you: Now This Would Be a Silly Ticket … During my research into this topic I discovered that while my home state, Pennsylvania, is very strict about signal use, North Carolina is actually much more reasonable.
The looser language used by North Carolina is helpful for motorists looking to find a way to beat a ticket because ambiguities lead to “technicalities.”
The Pennsylvania Approach
Here is Pennsylvania’s very strict law on signaling (Title 75, Section 3334):
“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.”
There is no real wiggle room here – a signal is required.
A recent court decision, Commonwealth v. HYDOCK, Pa: Superior Court 2020, makes clear just how strict it is. When the defendant failed to signal at a “right turn only” intersection, he was pulled over for violating Pennsylvania’s turn signal statute – even though it was obvious that he was going to turn. The judge said the following:
“Here, the signage at the subject intersection which states ‘Except Right Turn,’ clearly acknowledges that Hydock was making a right turn onto Industrial Boulevard from Lincoln Avenue. Accordingly, Officer Myers had probable cause to believe Hydock had violated section 3334(b) of the Vehicle Code where no one ‘shall turn a vehicle . . . without giving an appropriate signal.’”
The North Carolina Approach
But now take a look at the ambiguous language in North Carolina’s equivalent statute (Chapter 20, Section 154):
“The driver of any vehicle upon a highway or public vehicular area before starting, stopping or turning from a direct line shall first see that such movement can be made in safety, and if any pedestrian may be affected by such movement shall give a clearly audible signal by sounding the horn, and whenever the operation of any other vehicle may be affected by such movement, shall give a signal as required in this section, plainly visible to the driver of such other vehicle, of the intention to make such movement.”
While Pennsylvania requires a signal at all times, North Carolina only requires a signal “whenever the operation of any other vehicle may be affected.” This particular section of the statute is the key, because it opens up many possible “technicalities” or “excuses” you can use to win your case.
But what, exactly, does that word “affected” mean?
Finding a Way to Beat a Ticket – Traffic Ticket Defense Prong Three Applied
This is where the third prong of my Traffic Ticket Defense Method comes in (if you want to learn more about this method, check out my free eBook which takes you through the entire strategy). You need to find how judges have defined that term. And if you can actually find a case where a defendant won and the circumstances were similar to yours, you will also most likely prevail in court.
You can find these cases on a web site called Google Scholar. When I went to this page and searched North Carolina courts using the term “turn signal,” 147 results were returned. This is where the real work begins, because you have to read through the cases to try to find situations that are similar to yours. If that sounds like too much work, you can also narrow the search to more recent cases. For example, since 2016 there are only 17. More than likely, these recent cases will refer to any important older cases so this would probably be a good place to start.
In any case, I was actually able to find the most important decision on this topic right at the top of the 147 search results.
Case #1 – State v. Ivey: Signal Not Required
State v. Ivey, 360 N.C. 562, 633 S.E.2d 459, 461 (2006) is a NC Supreme Court case that clarifies the technicality involved in turn signal tickets. Here are the circumstances:
“On 11 September 2002, while on routine patrol of an urban area, Officer Rush observed defendant … on Monument Street in Charlotte, North Carolina. There is no indication that any other automobile or pedestrian traffic which might have been in the area would have been affected by defendant’s operation of the vehicle. Officer Rush, some distance directly behind the automobile, saw defendant … make a right turn without signaling. A concrete median at the T-intersection blocked a left turn, so that, as Officer Rush confirmed at the suppression hearing, defendant had no choice but to turn right.”
Notice how the judge specifically states that there were clearly no other potential vehicles that could have been affected by Ivey’s failure to signal.
Pretty straightforward, right?
Not so fast, says the judge …
“… the only question is whether Officer Rush’s vehicle may have been affected by the turn. Officer Rush was traveling at some distance behind the sport utility vehicle …”
In this case the officer was not affected by the failure to signal because defendant’s turn was “… the only legal movement he could make at the intersection.” There was a concrete barrier preventing him from turning left so there is no possible way the officer behind him could be confused or affected in any way – there was only one way to travel.
Case #2 – State v. Styles: Signal Might Be Required
This next case clarifies the issue of whether the police car behind you is “affected” by your failure to signal: State v. Styles, 665 SE 2d 438 – NC: Supreme Court 2008. The situation here was similar to the case discussed previously, so the defendant argued that he failure to signal had no effect on anyone. Unfortunately, the judge did not agree:
“Defendant argues there is no evidence that the movement of his vehicle could have affected the operation of another vehicle. We disagree. The trial court found that at the time defendant’s vehicle changed lanes without a signal, it was “being operated by the defendant immediately in front of” Officer Jones’ patrol vehicle.”
In other words, even if the only other vehicle on the road is the cop behind you who gives you the ticket, this is enough to say that someone could be “affected.”
Case #3 – State v. Hooker: Circumstances Matter
This next particular case (State v. Hooker, NC: Court of Appeals 2017) suggests several excuses that will most likely not fly in the courtroom, but don’t dismiss them out of hand yet (see my caveat below):
- failure to signal before turning right sharply at a four-way intersection
- failure to signal when making a one-lane change to the left
- failure to signal when moving into a left-turn lane
- failure to signal when changing lanes in heavy traffic.
Now, you might protest that these are obvious examples of illegal lane changes. But it is important to keep in mind that the police officers in this case made sure to highlight that …
“…there were other vehicles on the roadway; and that at the time three of the four alleged violations occurred, the traffic volume ranged from “medium” to “heavy.”
This leaves open the possibility that none of the four would be considered illegal on a deserted road in the middle of the night.
Case #4 – State v. McRae: Further Clarification
Here is another case that clarifies what you will not get away with: State v. McRae, 691 SE 2d 56 – NC: Court of Appeals 2010. The circumstances here are similar to State v. Styles that I discussed earlier. McRae made a turn into a gas station without signaling. Not only was the police officer immediately behind Styles (about 100 feet) but there was “medium” traffic on that road.
Distance & Signaling – Older Supreme Court Case #1
Clarke v. Holman, 163 SE 2d 783 – NC: Supreme Court 1968 reveals information about distance that may be important. Recall that in Styles the defendant was “immediately in front” of the police car and in McRae the distance was “about 100 feet.” In this particular case the individual who allegedly failed to signal (Townsend) was hit from behind (by Holman):
“Furthermore, one is not required to give a signal to a motorist who has not yet appeared on the horizon. In this case, such signal by Townsend for the last 200 feet traveled before stopping could not have affected Holman, and G.S. § 20-154 does not require such signal to be maintained after stopping.”
There are two important pieces of information here:
- First, although 100 feet (as per Styles) is too short a distance, 200 feet may very well be far enough away to not require a signal.
- The second part of that quote suggests that you only have to signal before you actually stop and not continuously through the turn. Have you ever been in a situation where you signal at an intersection but then the automatic turn signal goes off after stopping because the wheel was turned back?
Distance & Signaling – Older Supreme Court Case #2
The second case is even older – Cooley v. Baker, 58 SE 2d 115 – NC: Supreme Court 1950 – but also provides some important information about the distance issue. Here, Baker did not signal his intention to turn left when a car approaching him was 900 feet away. The judge indicated the following:
“Baker then had every reason to believe that he could complete his left turn and enter the premises of the service station with safety to himself and others, and without affecting in any way the operation of the approaching Pontiac Sedan … he did not violate the provisions of G.S. § 20-154.”
The Bottom Line – Circumstances Definitely Matter
Clearly, a signal is not always necessary – circumstances are what matters. A North Carolina Supreme Court decision from 1950 and 2006 both, essentially, agree on this point:
State v. Ivey (2006)
“… failure to give a signal, in and of itself, does not constitute a violation of N.C.G.S. § 20-154(a) …”
Stave v. Baker (1950)
“Moreover, the … Statute … does not require the driver of a motor vehicle intending to make a left turn upon a highway to signal his purpose to turn in every case.
“It imposes upon him the duty of giving a statutory signal of his intended left turn only [if] might affect the operation of another vehicle.
“the driver … has the right to take it for granted in the absence of notice to the contrary that the oncoming motorist will maintain a proper lookout, drive at a lawful speed, and otherwise exercise due care to avoid collision with the turning vehicle.”
So if you happen to get one of these tickets in North Carolina and want to successfully challenge it, you need to make sure that you have one of these extenuating circumstances. If not, however, all is not lost. I did not review every single possible case. There may very well be others that you can find by reading through the results from Google Scholar.