ATLANTA - Making a left turn sounds simple enough. But after considering a lawsuit by a frustrated motorist, Georgia's Supreme Court says the state traffic law governing left turns is so baffling that it violates the constitution.
Georgia's mystifying left-hand rule was struck down Monday by the state's top court.
The Supreme Court's unanimous finding that the law is "unconstitutionally vague" does not bind other states, but it could embolden other challenges. About 75 percent of states use an identical statute, according to an analysis by attorney Ben Goldberg, who filed the challenge on behalf of the aggrieved driver.
At the center of the argument is rambling language that has been a part of the traffic code in Georgia and other states for decades:
"Whenever practicable, the left turn shall be made to the left of the center of the intersection and so as to leave the intersection or other location in the extreme left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the same direction as such vehicle on the roadway being entered."
Local prosecutors say the meaning is simple: Drivers making a left turn must turn into the inside lane.
"It may be somewhat less than clear to someone that doesn't read law, but it makes perfectly good sense if you stop and read it," said Whitfield County District Attorney Kermit McManus, whose office handled the case.
He said the court's "strained" interpretation of the law could become a safety issue if the law allows people taking left turns to take the same lane as those motorists taking right turns onto the same road.
But Goldberg, a public defender in Dalton, said the left-turn law is too complicated for the average motorist let alone an attorney to pick up on its meaning.
"It's like reading another language," said Goldberg.
The appeal stemmed from a routine traffic stop in 2007 when a police officer pulled Todd Christopher McNair over after he turned into the outer, right-hand lane instead of the inner, left-lane closer to the oncoming traffic.
McNair did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment through his attorney. Two phone numbers listed for him were disconnected.
McNair was charged with making an improper left turn as well as driving under the influence and obstruction of a law enforcement officer. He spent the next four months in jail because his probation in an unrelated case was revoked because of the new charges.
A jury in March 2008 acquitted him of the more serious charges, but found him guilty of making the illegal left turn. He was sentenced to 12 months probation, a $500 fine, 100 hours of community service and drug and alcohol counseling.
McNair and his attorney appealed the case after discovering the left-turn issue hadn't reached the state's top court before. People may have always been confused about the law, but no one ever bothered to challenge it, said Mike McCarthy, who heads the local public defenders office.
"Only a public defender's office can bring this challenge unless someone is loaded and didn't care about spending the money," McCarthy said.
The left-turn law has been challenged with less luck in other states. An identical statute in Kansas was upheld in 1991 by that state's Court of Appeals, although it conceded the language is "not well written."
The Georgia court's unanimous ruling, penned by Presiding Justice Carol Hunstein, struck down the law on grounds it is so vague that a person of "common intelligence" is forced to guess at its meaning.
For Goldberg, it's one more step toward making the left turn a little less confusing.
"There are a lot of traffic laws, and as an attorney reading them I have trouble understanding what they say," said Goldberg. "As citizens, we're all entitled to be able to understand exactly what the government mandates."