Mitchell v. Dept. of Justice

Mitchell v. Dept. of Justice, 2015 MT 120 (Apr. 8, 2015) (Wheat, J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether a momentary deviation from a lane of traffic violates § 61-8-328, MCA.

Short Answer: Yes.


Facts: Officer began following two cars one night near Red Lodge. After some time, car in front of officer passed Mitchell, who was two cars ahead of patrolman. As it was passed, Mitchell’s car crossed yellow center line. Before being passed, Mitchell’s vehicle crossed the fog line. Officer stopped Mitchell and cited him for crossing center line. Mitchell refused a breath alcohol test, resulting in suspension of his driver’s license.

Procedural Posture & Holding: A month later, Mitchell petitioned the district court to reinstate his license. After a hearing, lower court denied the petition, finding Mitchell’s car slightly crossed over the center yellow line in violation of § 61-8-328, MCA. This gave the officer particularized suspicion to stop Mitchell’s car. 

Reasoning: The statute requires vehicles to be operated “as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane.” MCA § 61-8-328. Mitchell contends the plain language of the statute allows momentary deviations over the center line. “Mitchell does not argue that it was not practicable for him to operate his vehicle inside the lane of traffic. . . . Rather, he only argues that the statute provides an exception for any momentary deviation from a lane of traffic.” ¶ 10. The Court disagrees, explaining, “This decision does not foreclose the possibility that it will not be practicable to remain in a lane of traffic in all situations. We merely decide, based on the narrow issue presented by Mitchell, that momentary deviations are not excepted per se.” ¶ 10, n.1.