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State v. Brown

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

December 26, 2019


          MADSEN, J.

         We are asked to decide whether the phrase "when required" in RCW 46.61.305(2) compels drivers to use their signal every time they turn or change lanes on a roadway. We hold that it does. The plain language of RCW 46.61.305 requires drivers to ensure turns and lane changes are done safely and with an appropriate turn signal. RCW 46.61.305(1). The phrase "when required" relates to the manner in which the required signal is made-continuously during not less than the last 100 feet traveled. RCW 46.61.305(1)-(2). Because David Brown did not signal continuously while his vehicle turned left through an intersection, he violated RCW 46.61.305. Accordingly, we reverse the Court of Appeals and remand the case for further proceedings.


         On the evening of March 22, 2015, Brown was driving his truck in Kennewick, Washington. Clerk's Papers (CP) at 11, 73.[1] State patrol officers observed Brown turn right onto a four-lane street. While turning, the left side tires of Brown's truck briefly crossed the white dashed divider line before moving back into the correct lane. Eventually, Brown activated his left turn signal and moved his truck left while the signal blinked multiple times before shutting off. Brown again signaled his intent to change lanes, moving into the designated left turn lane while the turn signal blinked twice and then ceased. CP at 12; see also Ex. 1 (law enforcement dashboard camera recording). Brown approached and stopped at a red light; he did not reactivate his left turn signal at the light or while executing the left turn. State patrol officers had been driving behind Brown through the lane changes and turn, and the officers initiated a traffic stop. After his breath test showed 0.26 breath alcohol content, Brown was arrested for driving under the influence.

         In district court, Brown moved to suppress evidence gathered during the traffic stop. Among other things, the State argued that Brown violated RCW 46.61.305 for failing to continuously signal his intent to turn left. The court concluded that a driver is not required to reactivate a turn signal when entering a turn-only lane and, thus, the state patrol officers had no cause to stop Brown. Without the breath alcohol concentration evidence, Brown's case was dismissed. The district court denied reconsideration.

         The State appealed, and the superior court upheld the district court's decision that Brown's wide right turn and lane changes were proper but reversed the conclusion that he did not need to continuously signal his intent to turn left under RCW 46.61.305. Brown appealed only this holding. Br. of Appellant at 3-4 (Wash.Ct.App. No. 35304-4-III (2018)) (assigning error to superior court holding on RCW 46.61.305). The Court of Appeals reversed the superior court and concluded that .305 requires a signal only when public safety is affected. Because Brown was in a turn-only lane that did not jeopardize public safety, no signal was required. State v. Brown, 7 Wn.App. 2d 121, 123, 135-36, 432 P.3d 1241 (2019). Chief Judge Lawrence-Berrey dissented, reasoning that a signal must be continuous under the plain language of RCW 46.61.305. Id. at 140-42. The State moved for discretionary review here, which we granted. State v. Brown, 193 Wn.2d 1025(2019).


         To determine whether Brown's failure to continuously signal his intent to turn violated RCW 46.61.305, we must first interpret the phrase "when required" in RCW 46.61.305(2).

         The meaning of a statute is a question of law we review de novo. Lake v. Woodcreek Homeowners Ass'n, 169 Wn.2d 516, 526, 243 P.3d 1283 (2010) (citing Rozner v. City of Bellevue, 116 Wn.2d 342, 347, 804 P.2d 24 (1991)). "Our fundamental purpose in construing statutes is to ascertain and carry out the intent of the legislature. We determine the intent of the legislature primarily from the statutory language. In the absence of ambiguity, we will give effect to the plain meaning of the statutory language." In re Marriage of Schneider, 173 Wn.2d 353, 363, 268 P.3d 215 (2011) (citations omitted). In determining whether a statute conveys a plain meaning, "that meaning is discerned from all that the Legislature has said in the statute and related statutes which disclose legislative intent about the provision in question." Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wn.2d 1, 11, 43 P.3d 4 (2002).

         An undefined term is "given its plain and ordinary meaning unless a contrary legislative intent is indicated." Ravenscroft v. Wash. Water Power Co., 136 Wn.2d 911, 920-21, 969 P.2d 75 (1998). If the statute is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, it is ambiguous and the court "may resort to statutory construction, legislative history, and relevant case law for assistance in discerning legislative intent." Christensen v. Ellsworth, 162 Wn.2d 365, 373, 173 P.3d 228 (2007).

RCW 46.61.305 states:
When signals required-Improper use prohibited. (1) No person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety nor without giving an appropriate signal in the manner hereinafter provided.
(2) A signal of intention to turn or move right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than the last one hundred feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.

(Emphasis added.) "When required" is not defined in section .305 or Title 46. Brown contends the phrase implies there are instances when signaling is not required. Suppl. Br. of Resp't at 6-7; Br. of Appellant at 7 (Wash.Ct.App. No. 35304-4-III (2018)). Thus, he argues, interpreting RCW 46.61.305 as always requiring a signal renders the phrase meaningless. The Court of Appeals largely agreed, noting that we must construe statutes to give effect to all the language used. Brown,7 Wn.App. 2d at 135 (citing Cannabis Action Coal. v. City of Kent, 180 Wn.App. 455, 477, 322 P.3d 1246 (2014)). Because the words "when required" were used, lawmakers contemplated circumstances when turn signals are not required. Id. at 136. To that end, the Court of Appeals read .305(1) as concerned primarily with public safety. Id. Consequently, the court reasoned that a signal under .305(2) is required only when public safety is implicated by ...

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