New Book on Traffic Stops and Offenses

I’m pleased to announce that the School of Government has just released a new book entitled Pulled Over: The Law of Traffic Stops and Offenses in North Carolina. Shea Denning, Christopher Tyner, and I are the authors. It’s an important topic given that North Carolina officers conduct more than a million traffic stops each year and that many criminal cases, small and large, begin with a motor vehicle stop. This post provides more information about the book.

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Proving That Larceny of a Motor Vehicle Is a Felony

In some states, theft of an automobile is a felony regardless of the value of the vehicle. See, e.g., Fla. Stat. § 812.014. Not so in North Carolina. Motor vehicles don’t have any special status under our larceny statute, G.S. 14-72. Therefore, theft of an automobile is a misdemeanor unless the vehicle is worth more … Read more


Bail Bondsmen Are Not Above the Law

Post bail and skip out on court in North Carolina and chances are that someone other than a law enforcement officer will come looking for you. Bail bondsmen in this state have expansive powers to recapture their principals. Bondsmen may use reasonable force to apprehend a principal—even before a bond is forfeited. See State v. Mathis, … Read more


School Bus Safety

School started back this week across the state, which means that many school buses are traveling the roadways. Buses in my neighborhood hit the pavement early—one drove by this morning shortly after 6 a.m.—and often still are completing their routes when commuters begin to drive home from work. The advent of a new school year … Read more


Road Trips Raise the Darndest Questions

I was on vacation with my family last week, and there’s nothing quite like a drive across our fair state to spur interest in motor vehicle laws.  Here are a few of the questions that my clan raised along the way. On Interstate 40 1.  When will our six-year-old be able to ride without a booster … Read more

Court Costs and Traffic Citations

Court costs support many different programs and purposes. The principal statute concerning court costs in criminal cases is G.S. 7A-304. (Under G.S. 15A-1118, these costs also apply to infraction cases.) G.S. 7A-304 establishes various court costs for the support of “courtroom(s) and related judicial facilities,” “courthouse phone systems,” “retirement and insurance benefits [for] . . … Read more

Larceny of a Motor Vehicle

There’s a popular video game — or really, series of video games — called Grand Theft Auto. And many states have a crime called grand theft auto, or have some other theft offense that is specific to motor vehicles. In fact, according to this handy chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures, it appears … Read more


Qualifying Predicate Traffic Violations for Purposes of Misdemeanor Death by Vehicle

Misdemeanor death by vehicle is defined in G.S. 20-141.4(a2) as (1) unintentionally causing the death of another person (2) while violating a State law or local ordinance applying to the operation or use of a vehicle or to the regulation of traffic—other than impaired driving under G.S. 20-138.1—where (3) commission of the offense is the … Read more


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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