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Can an officer stop a vehicle because of a dim taillight?

The defendant argued that the court erred because Officer's stop of his vehicle violated the Fourth Amendment. Officer pulled defendant over, and when he approached the vehicle, he smelled alcohol and saw that defendant's eyes were glassy and bloodshot. Officer had defendant perform several field sobriety tests and determined that defendant was intoxicated. He then arrested defendant for OWI.

The case was centered on the question of when "a vehicle has two taillights and both taillights are, in some sense, operational, can the vehicle still violate section 686 when one of those taillights is not, in some other sense, fully operational? Defendant's taillights were both operational in the sense that they were lighted when the headlamps were lighted, but one of them was not fully operational in that the light emitted was significantly dimmer than the other.

The answer was: Yes, a vehicle with an operating taillight can violate section 686, but only if

  • the taillight is not red,
  • it is not plainly visible from at least 500 feet,
  • or it is not lighted when the headlamps or auxiliary lamps are lighted.

The dash-cam video clearly showed that the passenger-side taillight on the vehicle in question was significantly dimmer than the one on the driver-side. As the district court judge noted during the suppression hearing, when one taillight is significantly brighter than the other, a dangerous condition may arise. Added to the icy, wintery conditions present on the night in question and the fact that defendant was driving in a congested area in the dark of early morning. The defendant's defective taillight created a 'dangerous' condition, by itself, sufficient to justify the stop under MCL 257.683. Because Officer observed defendant's potential violation of the Vehicle Code, there existed reasonable suspicion to stop him. Thus, there was no Fourth Amendment violation.

Before you agree to pay a ticket or plea to any traffic violation, consider meeting with an attorney to evaluate your case. There is no denying that Michigan has harsh punishments for drinking and driving; jail, probation and license suspension are all possible, not to mention skyrocketing insurance rates and possible job loss. Retaining a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney who is committed to protecting your rights as soon as you are charged is essential.

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