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State v. Brooks

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

February 1, 2018

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Petitioner,
v.
JENA DALE BROOKS, Respondent.

          PENNELL, J.

         Washington's traffic code prohibits operating a vehicle on any part of a highway that does not meet the statutory definition of a roadway. Jena Brooks's car was stopped for violating this provision after it crossed a neutral area separating a highway onramp from an adjacent lane of travel. Because the neutral area does not meet the definition of a roadway, the stop was permissible. The superior court's ruling to the contrary is therefore reversed.

         BACKGROUND

         While merging onto westbound U.S. Route 97 from U.S. Route 2 in Chelan County, Jena Brooks's car crossed over a portion of the highway designated as a "neutral area." A neutral area is a paved triangular space separating an entrance or exit ramp from an adjacent lane of highway. The neutral area between Route 97 and its merger with westbound Route 2 is marked on each side by thick white channelizing lines. Figure 1 is a depiction of a neutral area similar to the one crossed by Ms. Brooks.[1]

         A Washington State Patrol trooper observed Ms. Brooks's vehicular activity and performed a traffic stop. Ms. Brooks was ultimately arrested for driving on a suspended license and other misdemeanor offenses.

         During proceedings in district court, Ms. Brooks filed a motion to suppress, arguing her vehicle had been stopped without cause. The motion was denied. Pertinent to this appeal, the district court ruled Ms. Brooks's merger over the highway's neutral area constituted "driving with wheels off roadway, " in violation of RCW 46.61.670. [2]Ms. Brooks was subsequently convicted of several misdemeanor offenses after a jury trial.

         Ms. Brooks successfully appealed the suppression ruling to the superior court. It found Washington's definition of a roadway ambiguous in the context of a highway's neutral area. The superior court then invoked the rule of lenity and determined Ms. Brooks should not have been stopped for driving with wheels off the roadway in violation of RCW 46.61.670.

         The State sought discretionary review from this court. Review was granted on two specific issues: (1) whether the term roadway is ambiguous in the current context, and (2) if the term is ambiguous, whether the rule of lenity is an available tool of statutory construction that might benefit a defendant such as Ms. Brooks.

         ANALYSIS

         Discerning the meaning of the term "roadway, " as used in RCW 46.61.670, is a matter of statutory interpretation. As such, our review is de novo. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002). We focus our statutory interpretation analysis on the language used by the legislature. In re Marriage of Schneider, 173 Wn.2d 353, 363, 268 P.3d 215 (2011). Resources such as dictionaries may be used to decipher a statute's plain meaning. Cornu-Labat v. Hosp. Dist. No. 2, 177 Wn.2d 221, 231, 298 P.3d 741 (2013). However, we will not resort to aides of construction such as legislative history and (perhaps) the rule of lenity unless we first find the legislature's language truly ambiguous. Timberline Air Serv. Inc. v. Bell Helicopter-Textron, Inc., 125 Wn.2d 305, 312, 884 P.2d 920 (1994); State v. Conover, 183 Wn.2d 706, 712, 355 P.3d 1093 (2015).

         Interpreting the term "roadway" begins with the relevant statutory text. Title 46 RCW defines "roadway" as "that portion of a highway improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel, exclusive of the sidewalk or shoulder even though such sidewalk or shoulder is used by persons riding bicycles." RCW 46.04.500.

         The statutory definition of a roadway involves a two-part inquiry. First, we ask whether a given portion of highway meets the triggering definition of a roadway. In other words, is the area improved, designed, or ordinarily used for vehicular travel? If not, the inquiry ends. The area is not a roadway. But if at least one of the three triggering definitions applies, we go on to ask whether the area is excluded from the scope of a roadway because the area constitutes a sidewalk or shoulder. If neither exclusion applies, then the area in question falls under the legislature's definition of a roadway.

         Of the three triggering definitions, highway design is the least indicative of roadway status in the current context. A highway's neutral area is not a vehicle lane. It is too short to facilitate meaningful travel. And its triangular shape cannot consistently accommodate the size of a vehicle. Rather than being designed for vehicular travel, it is apparent the neutral area is designed as a buffer zone. It keeps vehicles separate so as to facilitate speed adjustment and, in the context of a highway onramp, safe vehicle merging.

         National standards set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways confirm our observations about the apparent design purpose of a highway's neutral area. FED. HIGHWAY ADMIN., U.S. DEP'T OF TRANSP., MANUAL ON Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (2009 ed., rev. May 2012) (MUTCD).[3] The MUTCD refers to the neutral area as an "island." MUTCD, § 31.02, at 430. As such, it is an area intended for vehicle "separation." MUTCD, § 1A. 13(03)(98), at 15. Although a neutral area may be designated either by a wide or double solid white channelizing line (MUTCD, §§ 1A.13(03)(29), at 12, 1A.13(03)(124), at 17), the two options carry no substantive significance. Like a double white line, a solid white line can serve as an indicator that crossing is ...


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