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.

The court of appeals in State v. Heien, __ N.C. App. ___ (August 16, 2011) answered that question in the negative. So, the answer to the quiz question set forth above, which may surprise drivers and officers alike, is B.

In Heien, an officer stopped the car in which the defendant was a passenger after observing that when the driver applied the brakes, the vehicle’s left side brake light illuminated, but the right brake light did not. The officer subsequently searched the vehicle with the defendant’s consent and found cocaine. At his trial on drug trafficking charges, the defendant moved to suppress evidence of the cocaine on the basis that the stop of the vehicle violated his Fourth Amendment rights as the officer had no reasonable suspicion that the driver violated the state’s traffic laws. The trial court denied the motion. Defendant pled guilty but reserved the right to appeal the ruling on the motion to suppress. The court of appeals reversed the denial of the motion to suppress and vacated the defendant’s conviction.

The Heien court began its analysis by stating that a traffic stop based on an officer’s mistake of law is not reasonable, citing State v. McLamb, 186 N.C. App. 124 (2007) as support. In McLamb, the officer mistakenly believed that the driver was speeding based on his inaccurate belief that the speed limit was 20 mph when, in fact, the speed limit was 55 mph. The McLamb court held that the stop of the defendant’s vehicle, which was traveling at an estimated 30 mph, was not objectively reasonable and violated the Fourth Amendment. [Editor’s note: McLamb is discussed in this prior post.]

The Heien court then proceeded to analyze whether the malfunctioning of a single brake light when a functioning brake light is present is a violation of G.S. 20-129(g), G.S. 20-129(d), or G.S. 20-138.3 (a statute governing the scope of safety inspections). The court concluded that G.S. 20-129(g) requires only one stop lamp—or brake light—on a vehicle and that the requirements of G.S. 20-129(d) apply only to “rear lamps,” equipment that is separate and distinct from stop lamps. While the court characterized the definition of “stop lamp” as “antiquated” and “not reflecting actual vehicle equipment now included in most automobiles,” it noted that “only the General Assembly . . . can modify and update this outdated statutory language.” Slip. op. at 13. (Interestingly enough, an appellate court in Florida made a similar observation with respect to that state’s “stop lamp” laws several years ago. See Zarba v. State, 993 So. 2d 1000, 1001 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2007) (noting its observation in an earlier case “‘that if the Florida legislature wished to do so, it could amend the statute to require that when a vehicle is equipped with three stop lamps, all three of them must be operational,’” and commenting that “[t]o date, the legislature has not seen fit to amend the statute.”). Heien also rejected the State’s argument that the malfunctioning brake light provided reasonable suspicion for a violation of G.S. 20-183.3, which renders inspection of “[l]ights, as required by G.S. 20-129 or G.S. 20-129.1,” to see if they are in safe operating condition, part of the safety inspection process.

Once the Heien court concluded that there was no traffic violation, it found the stop objectively unreasonable and in violation of the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. That determination accords with McLamb, but is not a foregone conclusion in all courts. In contrast, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in United States v. Martin, 411 F.3d 998 (8th Cir. 2004) concluded that though the defendant’s operation of a vehicle with one malfunctioning brake light did not violate the tribal motor vehicle code applicable in the area where the defendant was driving, an objectively reasonable officer could have formed a reasonable suspicion that it did. The court explained that “[w]e should not expect state highway patrolmen to interpret the traffic laws with the subtlety and expertise of a criminal defense attorney [and that] [w]hile an expert defense attorney, and even a federal judge ultimately might conclude that the plain language of the Code technically requires only that a vehicle have one ‘stop light’ in working order, we think it is fair to say that the Code is counterintuitive and confusing.” Id. at 1001 (internal citations omitted). The court went on to note “[t]he requirement common to States in the region [] that all brake lights on a vehicle like [defendant’s] must be in good working order.” Id. Several other circuits have rejected the proposition that an officer’s mistake of law can provide the objectively reasonable suspicion for a stop. See United States v. McDonald, 453 F.3d 958, 961 (7th Cir. 2006) (citing split of authority and rejecting analysis in Martin).

Readers, be you law enforcement officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, or drivers, please write in to let us know if Heien is, in fact, news to you.