Probable Cause: Discussion of Rowe v. State

In many Maryland drinking and driving cases, the decision in Rowe v. State, 363 Md. 483, 769 A.2d 879 (2001) establishes parameters for whether police officers have probable cause to legally stop the driver.

In Rowe, a Maryland State Trooper observed a van being driven in the slow lane of I-95, at about 1:00AM. The trooper followed the vehicle for a little over a mile, and in that span observed it cross over onto the right shoulder about 8 inches, touch the rumble strip, return to the slow lane, and cross over a second time. The trooper then initiated a traffic stop “for the benefit of the driver…because it was late in the evening.” Id. at 428. The officer determined that the driver was not intoxicated, but discovered that he was driving a rental vehicle with an expired rental contract. The officer then searched the vehicle and discovered marijuana, and was issued a warning for failure to drive in a single lane under Trans Art. § 21-309(b) . Suppression of this evidence based on an unlawful stop was denied in the trial court.

The Court of Appeals reversed the denial. The Court stated that “the petitioner’s momentary crossing of the edge line of the roadway and the later touching of that line did not amount to an unsafe lane change or unsafe entry onto the roadway, conduct prohibited by §21-309, and thus, cannot support a traffic stop in this case.” Id. at 441. The Court also stated that a lawful traffic stop may also rest upon reasonable, articulable suspicion, and stated: “A traffic stop may also be constitutionally permissible where the office has a reasonable belief that “criminal activity is afoot.” Whether probable cause or reasonable suspicion exists to justify a stop depends on the totality of the circumstances.” The Court did not determine that there was other reasonable suspicion.

Several Maryland cases cite and distinguish Rowe. In many of these cases, the Court generally avoids using Rowe as a model because the driving violations at issue are normally more egregious then those exhibited in Rowe. In Edwards v. State, 143 Md. App. 155, 792 A.2d 1197 (2002), the driver crossed over the center line on approximately three occasions. The trial court determined that “Even without oncoming traffic, it being late at night, it’s still a dangerous maneuver of more significance than crossing a shoulder line as was discussed in Rowe v. Maryland. I find this case clearly distinguishable from Rowe v. Maryland.” Id. at 162. The appellate court upheld the Trial Court’s rule.

In Dowdy v. State, 144 Md. App. 325, 798 A.2d 1 (2002), a driver swerved from the slow lane into the passing lane. The Court there distinguished this from Rowe because there, there was no lane change. In Dowdy¸ however, the driver’s erratic driving created potential danger to anyone who have may been proceeding lawfully in the passing lane. Also, the Court determined that this driving pattern was more characteristic of a drunk driver then in Rowe and should be considered as part of the “totality of the circumstances.”

Finally, in Blasi v. State, 167 Md. App. 483, 893 A.2d 1152 (2006), the Court again found that the stop was justified. There, the Court determined that the driver was driving even more dangerously then in Dowdy. In Blasi, within the span on ¼ mile, the driver went on to the right shoulder, with one half of his car over the white line, came back left, and crossed over the broken line between lanes one and two, while fluctuating in speed between 65 and 45 mph. Again, the Court did not follow the standard established in Rowe.

For more information regarding probable cause to detain a motorist in a Maryland DUI/DWI stop, please contact Steve Silverman.

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