A client was driving in Austin, Texas when an APD Officer stops him for driving with an open trunk. After a brief detention, the client was arrested for DWI. We filed a Motion to Suppress the Evidence.
Driving with an open trunk does not lead to a conclusion that criminal activity is afoot. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see passenger cars traveling the streets of Texas transporting cargo and supplies that do not fit neatly within the space of a vehicle’s trunk.
Furthermore, no legal authority in Texas requires passenger vehicles to have a trunk or — if the car has a trunk — that the trunk be closed while driving. Texas code provisions sensibly require that motor vehicles be operated in such a way as not to endanger anyone. These same provisions require compliance with safety equipment regulations. Obviously, vehicles should not be operated if the vehicle is in a mechanical condition that endangers others. Texas law even goes as far as to punish vicariously owners who knowingly permit their vehicles to be driven unlawfully.
It follows then from a reading of these statutes that so long as a vehicle is operated safely and complies with safety equipment requirements, driving with an open trunk does not constitute criminal activity. A traffic stop cannot be justified based on operating a vehicle with an open trunk unless that mechanical condition presents a safety hazard to another person or a designated safety equipment violation is detected.
There are no references to vehicle “trunks,” in the Texas Transportation Code. Instead, the Transportation Code delegates Vehicle Equipment Standards and Requirements to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The Department’s rules with respect to vehicle inspections are addressed in 37 Tex. Admin. Code § 23.41. Chapter Four of the DPS Training and Operations Manual Inspection Procedures provides, among other things, lists the items to be inspected for motor vehicle inspections. These are the same items that are checked when any passenger vehicle is brought in for a Texas Vehicle Inspection.
Conspicuously absent from Chapter 4 and the Federal Standard is any mention of inspecting a passenger car’s trunk lid or closing mechanism. Compare, Commonwealth. v. Williams, 125 A.3d 425 (2015), where the Superior Court of Pennsylvania held that a police officer had reasonable suspicion that a violation of Section 4107(b)(2) of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code governing operation of unsafe conditions, so as to justify a traffic stop where the officer observed appellant’s vehicle driving down a street with its trunk open. In Williams, the open trunk was sufficient for the officer to suspect that the trunk lid was not in working order due to the latch not working properly. Significantly, the vehicle inspection protocols in Pennsylvania required inspection of the fenders, hood, and trunk lid. A passenger vehicle in Pennsylvania would fail inspection if the trunk lid was not present or did not close securely.
Texas has no similar provision in its regulatory framework. Texas rules do not require a passenger vehicle to have a trunk nor a trunk lid. Vehicle trunks are not inspected in Texas. Consequently, driving with an open trunk does not amount to a violation of Texas vehicle equipment standards and requirements. Driving with an open trunk does not support reasonable suspicion to stop a motorist for driving under unsafe conditions or for a traffic offense.
Finally, Federal Standards do not address the operation of passenger vehicles with open trunks. Texas Transportation Code § 547.3215 provides:
§ 547.3215. Use of Federal Standard
Unless specifically prohibited by this chapter, lighting, reflective devices, and associated equipment on a vehicle or motor vehicle must comply with:
(1) the current federal standards in 49 C.F.R. Section 571.108; or
(2) the federal standards in that section in effect, if any, at the time the vehicle or motor vehicle was manufactured.
Tex. Transp. Code Ann. § 547.3215. This section in turn references 49 C.F.R. Section 571.108 which only refers to Lamps, reflective devices, and associated equipment not having to do with trunks.