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.

32 thoughts on “Is a Burned Out Brake Light a Basis for a Stop?”

  1. Just some observations;

    As already mentioned, the state requires the brake lights to be in operating order when a citizen submits to mandatory yearly vehicle inspections. Does this mean only one has to be in working order for the inspection? According to the state, no. I’m sure the state would argue this is a safety issue. Okay, so when someone doesn’t comply with this issue, how is it enforced?

    Do federal laws requiring three brake lights matter? Do they have to work? Doesn’t federal law usually trump state law?

    Also, whatever happen to attorneys (both prosecution and defense) being “officers of the court” and “seekers of the truth”, instead of “let me get my drug trafficking client off regardless of his guilt!” Sorry, I had to get on my soapbox a little.

    • It doesn’t seem right that we should have to adhere to the letter of the law in order to catch those who are breaking the law, but I guess we ought to.

    • First, Federal law does not trump state laws in many cases ( the Supreme Court denied cert. to state entities seeking to counter medical pot laws..a sheriff refused to return pot to a patient with the excuse that to do so would violate federal law, now he is compelled to return it).

      Also, defense attorneys are not agenst of the prosecution and are duty bound to use and and all means to exploit the law to get their clients off…otherwise why have them at all. Prosecutors do not care one whit about the ” truth ” as evidenced by the hundreds of cases of exonerations that were caused by prosecutorial and police misconduct . The DA’s are nothing more than partners of the cops, and will bend over backwards to defend even the most egregious cases of police improperly charging people. Getting convictions is all they care about, not truth.

      Whether a client is technically guilty of an offense matters not if the means to convict undermines the rights we cherish. If cops were allowed to use their ignorance of the law as an excuse, no one would be safe from any intrusion of their privacy; all the cop would have to say is : ” I thought it may have been illegal, so give me the good faith exception”…cops would violate 4th amendment rights helter skelter if they knew that they could plead ignorance of the statutes n court and get a free pass everytime. We cannot argue ignorance of the law as a defense, and cops should not be able to either. we assume that cops are trained to know the laws they are enforcing, not pull over and detain people who have committed no crime and later plead ignorance of the law.

      Cops exploit any and every loophole to get around rights, we all know that. Giving them the opportunity to use non existant statutes to justify detention and searches of people will encourage all manner of abuses. It is far better for someone with drugs or whatever to get off than for all of us to become victims of the erosion of our rights. For example, it is settled law that one can ” flip off ‘ a cop or anyone else as an expression of 1st amendment rights. If cop were to be allowed to say that they thought miistakenly that it was illegal due to lack of training and comprehemsion of the law, all sorts of expressive rights would disappear and the amendments that protect us all would be rendered moot.

      Defense atorneys are the only protection people have against the vast resources of the state, and if the laws are written in a way that can get a client free and cleared of charges they can do no wrong in using all means within the law to do so. Factual guilt is not the issue, it is rather the means used to convict people. Better a drug dealer get off than me getting pulled over and detained by some cop who imagines that I violated a law when I did not. Let him use his imagination after work, not while enforcing the actual laws on the books.

      • Not to mention, the cop doesn’t like that you remind him of his mom’s new boyfriend, or anything else about the way you look, and he can detain you and make you miserable with damage to your car or home through a warrantless search, and then say, “But, but… But I THOUGHT…”

    • No, federal laws do not trump state laws. You will find that concept no where in statute. State laws can be stricter but no less strict.

      If you are in a state court, state laws apply. I have never seen a federal law applied in a state or municipal court.

      And case law has allowed nullification of the fruits of the poisonous tree doctrine lately but generally speaking the ends do not justify the means in our country.

  2. No surprise to me as I had read about this elsewhere and then read the opinion weeks ago.
    My guess is that the School of Government Prosecution wanted to highlight this issue so that the legislature could hurry up and pass legislation to close this potential, but very small, give to a defendant.

  3. Thanks for clarifying this. While it may not be lawful it customarily happens and people are fined under G.S. 20-129(d) frequently. m44b

  4. It’s kind of ridiculous that this well-reasoned, perfectly logical and lawful COA opinion was stayed. In order for an officer to pull over a motorist for violating a statute, they have to see an actual violation of a statute. The Heien court painstakingly went through the brake light statute. The statute also happens to be very clearly written. It only requires “a” light. One light. A single light. I repeat, ONE LIGHT. It does require that the light be red and visible for a certain number of feet, but in the end, it all comes back to the one light requirement.

    Now it seems some of the commenters above have raise the safety issue as an independent reason to pull over a vehicle with one (of two or three) brake light out. That just doesn’t fly. The legislature has spoken on the issue of safety, and they said you need ONE LIGHT. Do they need to go back and rewrite the statute? Maybe. That’s their call. But in the meantime, vehicles with one brake light are in compliance with the law and all the hand wringing over suppressed kilos of cocaine doesn’t make it otherwise.

  5. I’ve been a passenger in two cars that have been pulled over for having a break light out. It’s a real pain but I can understand that it is a safety issue. And as Mike pointed out, I’d hate to see guilty parties being let off for any criminal activity that was discovered if these stops are classified as officers’ mistakes.

  6. Thank you ANOTHER PD for your liberal response. I am glad that you agree with letting drug traffickers go based on out dated language that you very well know has been enforced for years. This is not an argument over constitutional rights or a law that discriminates, this is a liberal loop hole that people like you agree with manipulating in an effort to excuse the illegal activities of others. It is ridiculous to expect any Officer to reasonable believe that it is legal for a vehicle to operate on the highway with only one operable brake light, when that same vehicle will not pass NC State Inspection. If that same vehicle fails inspection because of the inoperable brake light, then it is operating on the roadway illegally and can be charged for failing to pass state inspection.

    The argument is not as much over safety as it is the requirement that all OEM lights must function properly. It is a logical conclusion considering once a year I have to prove to a state inspector that all of my lights do in fact operate. Hopefully the wording will be updated and we can get back to work until some bleeding heart finds another loop hole to justify the illegal activities of his/her client. In the mean time, ANOTHER PD, can enjoy runnning one brake light oh and watch out for that vehicle in front of you that just slammed on it’s brakes and you never noticed because all they had was ONE brake light, let me say it again, ONE brake light…

    • “It is ridiculous to expect any Officer to reasonable believe that it is legal for a vehicle to operate on the highway with only one operable brake light, when that same vehicle will not pass NC State Inspection”. The solution is for the DMV to comply with the law and quit demanding more than one lamp to be operable. the law is clear, and the fact that the DMV is not complying does not give cops the right to assume that the DMV is right and the law wrong.

      If there were no ” bleeding heart” attorneys to insist that the law be followed, we would be in a complete police state. What about all the people cops would pull over and detain who had no drugs and who had committed no offense? Is their right to privacy and to be safe from illegal detention just to become a victim of the hunt for the 10% that may have contraband? If the law is changed to require multiple lights, then fine. But until then, allowing cops to use ignorance of the law or the requirements of some state agency that they are not party of, and who are wrongfully ignoring the statues to require more than the law demands will result in the expansion of police misuse and abuse of the law. Cops should be taught the actual statutes and be required to enforce them properly, not to plead ignorance of the law as an excuse for their actions.

    • AAron I understand and totally agree that drug dealers should not be let go and keep on doing the same thing all because of a technicality, but as bad as we hate the fact that they can go on and break the law by having illegal drugs in their vehicle it is against the 4th amendment. If we let them get by with this then they can do the other amendments the same way also. The thing to do is contact the Legislators to change this stupid loophole.

    • I am a nc emissions inspector. I CAN NOT fail a vehicle as long as “one” brake light illuminates when the brake pedal is pressed.

    • It is not ridiculous to EXPECT an officer to know the law and then to enforce only the laws.

      What is ridiculous, is officers to ignoe the rule of law and not suffer consequences.

      This is not a lib vs. con issue. It is a democtatic freedom vs. fascism issue.

  7. This is a pretty interesting case. Unfortunately, I have to agree with the defense on this one. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. To add to that line of thought, it is also interesting that when a civilian is involved, it is the LETTER of the law that matters, but when an officer is involved, it is the SPIRIT of the law that matters. For instance, not long ago here in NC several deputies went to a house to investigate a report of a stolen XBOX. They knocked on the door of the residence, and as the occupant made his way to the door, the officer heard what he thought were gunshots. He drew his weapon and fired repeatedly through the closed door without ever seeing anything like a threat, killing the occupant before he could even answer the knock. Citing prosecutorial discretion the DA declined to press charges.

    • Wow that is messed up the shots or sound could of came from the XBOX with whom the home owner had hooked up to a surround sound system in which he/she was playing a war game.

  8. I don’t pretend to have the answer to the mistake of law question in general, but I’m not convinced there was a mistake here.
    If one section of NC law says one working brake light is enough, and another section says both must work if the car has two, I understand the ambiguity should be resolved in favor of the motorist.
    But I don’t think it should end there. If a car won’t pass NC inspection unless both brake lights work, then the violation should be clear.

  9. As someone who has taken and passed the course to become a NC safety inspector, we are taught that only brake light has to be working to pass NC inspection. Anyone failing a vehicle that has at least one working, red or Amber, brake light is not following the law as written and enforced. Btw, you also do not need reverse lights, so long as they are not operational in forward motion.

  10. how many times have you seen the law enforcement vehicle with the lights not working. why does an inoperative light dictate a search? how does a light that is not working at the moment connect to someone being a criminal or just committing a crime?

  11. Agree the statute as written is ridiculous, but clear. Search was unreasonable.

    But that’s unfortunate, because anyone dumb enough to go driving around in a car full of cocaine that takes the risk of calling attention to themselves with a faulty brake light really deserves to get caught.

  12. Why cant we all in all states be on the same level a brake light out is a brake light out especially if all lights are to be in working condition. One brake light should constitute a reasonable stop and citation. We need to stop babying these people who brake the law whether or not its a brake light or head light out. If they cant pass an inspection for having a brake light, head light out then we should be able to stop the vehicle.

    • look at what” Lee” said above.he said you can pass inspection with one brake light out(in nc).why would they need to search your car if a brake light was not working?this would be a hassle anyway whether you are a lib or republican.


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.