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Nebraska Supreme Court: State Traffic Laws Preempt Contrary Municipal Ordinances

on Friday, 6 January 2023 in Dirt Alert: David C. Levy, Editor

State v. Albarenga, 313 Neb. 72 (2022).

After observing Seidy Albarenga run a red light, a Lincoln police officer pulled her over.  Albarenga had turned left from a one-way street onto another one-way street despite a left-turn signal that showed solid red.  Lincoln Municipal Code section 10.12.030 prohibits drivers from entering an intersection if they face a steady red-arrow light.

The officer also observed impairment.  A chemical test showed Albarenga was above the legal limit for alcohol.  A court convicted her for violating an automatic traffic signal and driving under the influence.

Albarenga challenged her convictions.  She claimed her first conviction was invalid, because state law permits drivers facing a solid-red light at an intersection of two one-way streets to cautiously enter the intersection and make a left turn after stopping.  Neb. Rev. Stat. § 60-6,123(3)(c).  Albarenga claimed her second conviction was invalid because it derived from the unlawful traffic stop.

The district court and court of appeals each affirmed.  Albarenga appealed.

The Nebraska Supreme Court reversed the first conviction.  The court held state law preempted the local provision.  Preemption invalidates municipal ordinances that are repugnant to, or inconsistent with, state law.  Malone v. City of Omaha, 294 Neb. 516, 529 (2016).  Because municipalities’ authority derives from the state, they cannot legislate in contravention of state law.  Id.

By a combination of statutes, the Nebraska Legislature expressed an intent to preempt most local traffic laws.  Neb. Rev. Stat. section 60-602(7), for instance, states the purpose of state traffic laws is to “encourage[e] voluntary compliance with law through uniform rules.”  Section 60-6,108(3) mandates that no local authority may enact or enforce any ordinance directly contrary to state traffic law.

The court found there was no way to reasonably harmonize the state law and the local law.  By prohibiting a turn on a steady red arrow, the local law runs directly counter to the state law, which permits such a turn.  Thus, “[t]he ordinance attempts to forbid that which the Legislature has expressly authorized.  Accordingly, [Lincoln Municipal Code section] 10.12.030 is preempted by state law.”

The court declined to invalidate Albarenga’s second conviction.  Because it was objectively reasonable at the time for the officer to presume section 10.12.030 was enforceable, the officer had a right to stop Albarenga and observe her impairment.  The stop thus did not undermine her second conviction.

This case is a good reminder for municipalities to avoid legislating where the Legislature has expressly prohibited local laws.

Hannes D. Zetzsche

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