Traffic Offense – Following Too Closely…

This is Part Two of a five part series of posts I began with my April 28th post entitled “Analyzing Traffic Stops” wherein I indicated I would discuss four specific traffic laws commonly used by law enforcement officers in the Amarillo area to initiate traffic stops. As I mentioned in my April 28th post, the legality of traffic stops are analyzed under the two-prong test set out in Terry v. Ohio.

The first statute I want to discuss is § 545.062 (a) of the Texas Transportation Code which states:

An operator shall, if following another vehicle, maintain an assured clear distance between the two vehicles so that, considering the speed of the vehicles, traffic, and the conditions of the highway, the operator can safely stop without colliding with the preceding vehicle or veering into another vehicle, object, or person on or near the highway.

I regularly see cases where the officer stops a motor vehicle for following too closely in violation of this section. Now you may ask yourself, what does it mean to follow too closely? Based on my reading of § 545.062 (a), a driver commits a traffic offense if, considering the speed of the vehicles, the other traffic on the roadway and the conditions of the highway, he fails to allow enough space between his vehicle and any vehicle he is following, to avoid an accident if he is required to suddenly stop.

Recall that the legality of a traffic stop is determined by the factors relied upon by a law enforcement officer in making the decision to stop the motor vehicle. What the officer saw and his interpretations of his observations are critical to the determination.

When I conduct my investigation in cases governed by § 545.062 (a), the officer generally writes in his report that he stopped the vehicle for following too closely and leaves it at that. Very rarely do I see any mention of the speed of the vehicles, any other traffic on the roadway or the condition of the highway, or even how close the vehicles actually are to one another – all important factors under the statute.

In a case involving § 545.062 (a), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in its Terry analysis, stated: “…specific, articulable facts are required to provide a basis for finding reasonable suspicion. Mere opinions are ineffective substitutes for specific, articulable facts in a reasonable-suspicion analysis.” Ford v. State, 158 S.W.3d 488, 493 (Tex.Crim.App. 2005).

These types of cases are challenged by filing a motion to suppress evidence. At the hearing on the motion to suppress, the State has the burden to prove the officer had probable cause to stop the vehicle. Under the rulings of Terry and Ford, the officer must have specific, articulable facts that show a violation § 545.062 (a). Without these facts, the traffic stop would be illegal. It is important to note that the officer’s opinion that the driver was following too closely is not sufficient to establish probable cause for the traffic stop.