Driving on Neutral Area Between Ramp and Highway Lane is a Violation of Washington Law

Washington criminal defense attorneys know that the validity of a traffic stop can have a significant effect on a resulting criminal case.  A finding that the traffic stop was improper can result in the exclusion of evidence found during the stop.  One defendant sought to have evidence suppressed due to a stop she argued was improper in a recent case.

Legal News GavelThe defendant was pulled over after a trooper saw her vehicle cross over the “neutral area” between the entrance ramp and the highway.  The “neutral area” is the paved triangular space between the ramp and the lane of the highway.  The neutral area was marked by white lines on both sides. The defendant was arrested for driving on a suspended license and other misdemeanors.

The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing she was stopped without cause.  The trial court denied her motion.  The trial court found the defendant violated RCW 46.61.670 by “driving with wheels off roadway” when she merged across the neutral area.  The defendant was ultimately convicted by a jury of several misdemeanors.

She appealed the suppression ruling.  The superior court found that the definition of a “roadway” was ambiguous as to the neutral area.  The superior court applied the rule of lenity and found the defendant should not have been stopped for a violation of RCW 46.61.670.

The state then sought discretionary review from the Court of Appeals.  The appeals court granted review on the issues of whether “roadway” is ambiguous and, if so, whether the rule of lenity would benefit the defendant.

The appeals court first looked at the statutory definition.  A roadway is defined as the “portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk or shoulder….”  The appeals court noted the definition is a two-prong test.  First, the court must determine if the area in question is improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel.  If so, the court must determine if the area is excluded because it is a sidewalk or shoulder.  If the area meets the definition of a roadway and is not excluded, the area is a roadway.

The appeals court noted that the neutral area is not a vehicle lane and is too short for meaningful travel.  The court found the neutral area was designed as a buffer zone to separate vehicles to facilitate speed adjustment and merging.  The appeals court also noted that the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways supported its finding.

The defendant argued the neutral area was an “improvement for vehicular travel” because the area was paved.  The court agreed that the area was improved but not that it was improved for the purpose of vehicular travel.  The court found that the purpose of the improved neutral area was to alert drivers to the buffer zone and keep vehicles out so that traffic could merge safely.  The court found that pavement alone is not a sufficient indicator that the area was improved for vehicular travel.

The court then considered the third triggering definition, regular use.  The appeals court found no evidence vehicles regularly used the neutral area for travel.  The court noted the neutral area here was not like a highway shoulder, where small vehicles like bicycles can safely travel.

The court found that the neutral area was not designed, improved, or regularly used for vehicular travel.  It therefore did not meet the definition of a roadway.  The court did not, therefore, have to determine if the rule of lenity applied.

The court found that the defendant had failed to keep her wheels on the roadway and that the stop was therefore appropriate.  The appeals court reversed the superior court’s order on appeal.

If you are facing criminal charges resulting from a traffic stop, you need an experienced Washington criminal defense attorney.  The attorneys at Blair & Kim, PLLC, aggressively defend our clients’ rights.  Call us at (206) 622-6562 to discuss your case.

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