As we discussed in our recent blog, a car stop by a police officer is lawful in only a certain number of situations. One is when the copy has probable cause to believe the driver has committed a traffic violation. An equipment violation, such as an unlit brake light pursuant to VTL § 375, is a no-point traffic infraction which can be cause for such a stop.
But what if your car has two brake lights on either side, and one in the middle? If the center brake light is out, is that probable cause for the stop? The Court of Appeals has weighed in on a case involving a stop in that circumstance, which ultimately led to DWI charges.
The Cop Stopped the Driver for an Equipment Violation
The defendant was driving the in the Bronx when he was pulled over by police. The officer indicated that the defendant’s center brake light was out – allegedly an equipment violation. However, the car had two otherwise functioning brake lights. Subsequently, the cop observed signs of intoxication and administered a field sobriety test. The defendant failed the test and was arrested for DWI.
Is an Unlit Center Brake Light an Equipment Violation Under the Law?
The defendant moved to suppress the evidence of his intoxication. Specifically, he moved to suppress the police officer’s observations, the chemical breath test, and the defendant’s statements. Why? He claimed that having a center brake light out was not an equipment violation. The text of the applicable law, VTL § 375(40)(b), states:
Every motor vehicle … shall be equipped with at least two stop lamps, one on each side, each of which shall display a red to amber light … when the brake of such vehicle is applied.
The prosecution argued that the officer’s belief that defendant was violating the law was “a reasonable mistake” rendering the stop permissible. Despite that prosecution’s argument, the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence. Thereafter, the trial court’s holding was affirmed by the Appellate Term.
The Court of Appeals Holding
The prosecution appealed to the Court of Appeals. While ultimately holding that probable cause for the stop existed, the judges were split on the reasoning. As such, the defendant’s motion to suppress was denied and the case was returned to the Bronx Criminal Court for further proceedings.
Some judges held that yes, it was a violation of the law if the center brake light was out. Other sections of the law – including VTL §§ 375(19), 376(1)(b), 376(3), and 376-a, as well as DMV regulations – require all equipped lights on a car to be lighted. Other judges, however, felt that it might not be a violation of the law if the center brake light was out but the officer’s mistake of law in this case was reasonable, thus allowing probable cause for the stop under a constitutional law exception.
Yet there were also dissenting opinions. One judge opined that clearly, VTL § 375(40)(b) “does not authorize stopping a vehicle solely because its center brake light does not work.” Another judge opined that while a non-functioning brake light may be cause for failing DMV’s safety inspection, those DMV regulations do not provide legal grounds for the stop of the car. Both dissenting judges criticized the Court for “validating police conduct as a potential ‘mistake’ of law without saying whether the conduct was in fact a mistake of law.”
- People v. Robin Pena, New York Court of Appeals, case no. 45 (Nov. 19, 2020). Available at: https://www.nycourts.gov/ctapps/Decisions/2020/Nov20/45ent20-Decision.pdf (last accessed Nov. 20, 2020).
- People v. Robin Pena, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 51499(U) (App. Term 1st, 2018). Available at: https://law.justia.com/cases/new-york/appellate-term-first-department/2018/2018-ny-slip-op-51499-u.html (last accessed Nov. 20, 2020).
- VTL § 375, “Equipment.” Available at: https://codes.findlaw.com/ny/vehicle-and-traffic-law/vat-sect-375.html (last accessed Nov. 20, 2020).