Is a Burned Out Brake Light a Basis for a Stop?

We’ll start with a pop quiz:

A police officer sees that the right brake light of a vehicle fails to illuminate when the driver applies brakes while driving down a street in North Carolina. The left brake light works. Does the officer’s observation of the malfunctioning right brake light provide reasonable suspicion that a violation of the state’s traffic laws has occurred, thus justifying a stop of the vehicle?

  1. Yes.  A stop of the vehicle based on this observation is constitutional.
  2. No.  A stop of the vehicle based on this observation is unconstitutional.

So as not to spoil the surprise, the answer appears after a page break.  First, some background.

G.S. 20-129(g) sets forth the requirements for brake lights—termed “stop lamps” under the statute—on vehicles operated on North Carolina roads. Any motor vehicle, motorcycle, or motor-driven cycle manufactured after December 31, 1955 that is operated on street or highway in North Carolina must be “equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.” The stop lamp must display a red or amber light visible from at least 100 feet to the rear in normal sunlight.  It may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.

Other provisions of G.S. 20-129 set forth the requirements for lighted “rear lamps” for vehicles. G.S. 20-129(d) requires that every motor vehicle, and every trailer or semitrailer attached to a motor vehicle and every vehicle drawn at the end of a combination of vehicles must “have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order, which lamps shall exhibit a red light plainly visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the rear of such vehicle.”

So, every motor vehicle must have one working brake light pursuant to G.S. 20-129(g). And all of a vehicle’s “rear lamps” must be in good working order pursuant to G.S. 20-129(d). Does this mean that if a vehicle is equipped with more than one brake light, all of them must work? Find out after the jump.

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