Can police stop me for broken taillights?

Wondering whether police can stop you for broken taillights in Wisconsin?  Van Severen Law Office, S.C. criminal defense lawyers explain:

Broken taillights, and replacing burnt out bulbs, involves one of the most basic forms of maintenance we must perform on our vehicles.  This is especially the case if you’ve ever had the pleasure of driving a high mileage vehicle with some wear on it.  Unfortunately, sometimes you don’t discover your tail light isn’t working until it’s too late and the cops are behind you.  Whether the police can pull you over for an equipment violation, like this, is a simple question.  Of course they can.  But that answer relies on important constitutional principles and various statutory pieces of law.

You’re certainly not going to jail for a broken bulb.  But a stop of your vehicle for this issue could lead to criminal charges for unrelated issues.  Were you drunk when the police pulled you over?  If the cops smell booze, they’ll likely pull you out of the vehicle and conduct field sobriety tests.  That could lead to drunk driving charges.  Is there weed in the car?  That pungent odor, on its own, is enough to conduct a full search of your vehicle.  Any unauthorized weapons or drugs found during that search will also lead to charges.  So while it might seem like “just a light,” that light can lead to a lot of additional trouble.

Van Severen Law Office, S.C. is a criminal defense law firm based in Milwaukee, WI.  We operate satellite offices in Waukesha (Waukesha County) and Port Washington (Ozaukee County), allowing us to help individuals throughout all of Wisconsin.  Whether you’re close to one of our offices, or in an opposite corner of the state, we’re equipped to defend you.  Contact us at (414) 270-0202 to schedule an initial consultation or to simply figure out how we can help.

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Probable cause versus reasonable suspicion: two ways the police can stop your vehicle.

Before getting into the broken taillights issue, it makes sense to first explain the ways police can stop you.  To be very clear, police cannot just stop you because they feel like it.  The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable searches and seizures” and requires that warrants only be issued based on probable cause.  But you’ve never heard of a warrant being issued over a tail light.  And neither have we.  So how do cops get their hands on you?

Generally speaking, traffic stops occur after a police officer develops reasonable suspicion or probable cause.

  • Reasonable suspicion occurs when the officer considers an entire situation, and has more than a “hunch” that criminal activity may be afoot.  Reasonable suspicion is frequently involved in operating while intoxicated stops.  Reasonable suspicion is more general, and although the “totality of the circumstances” may include numerous factors, is generally considered a lower bar for stopping drivers.
  • Probable cause is behind the majority of equipment violation stops.  Probable cause refers to facts and other pieces of evidence that lead an observer (usually a cop) to conclude that a violation of the law occurred.  Seeing an equipment violation actively occurring gives that officer probable cause to believe there’s a violation of the law.  A cop seeing someone punch someone else is probable cause (for battery).

Section 347.13 of the Wisconsin Statutes – Tail maps and registration plate lamps

Section 347.13 of the Wisconsin Statutes describes the legal requirements for tail lamps in Wisconsin.  Subsection (1) of that statute indicates the following:

(1)  No person may operate a motor vehicle … upon a highway during hours of darkness or during a period of limited visibility unless the motor vehicle … is equipped with at least one tail lamp mounted on the rear which, when lighted during hours of darkness, emits a red light plainly visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear. No tail lamp may have any type of decorative covering that restricts the amount of light emitted when the tail lamp is in use. No vehicle originally equipped at the time of manufacture and sale with 2 tail lamps may be operated upon a highway during hours of darkness or during a period of limited visibility unless both lamps are in good working order. This subsection does not apply to any type of decorative covering originally equipped on the vehicle at the time of manufacture and sale.

All modern motor vehicles are originally equipped with 2 tail lamps, and therefore must be operational during times of darkness and limited visibility.  It is against the law to operate a vehicle contrary to this statute.

The penalty for this offense is a fine ranging between $10.00 and $200.00.  This is not a crime.  You cannot go to jail or prison for it.

The illuminated tail light on a motor vehicle
Wondering whether police can stop you for broken taillights? They can. This is a ticketable offense.  This is not a criminal charge, and therefore neither a misdemeanor nor a felony.

A broken tail light is just a ticket, what’s the big deal?

Receiving a ticket can be a pain.  But a tail light issue could lead to more serious problems depending on what’s in your vehicle.

Let’s consider an example: you went out to dinner and had two drinks.  The pours were a little heavy and your blood alcohol concentration is .08.  You’re drunk driving, whether or not you feel it.  Your burnt out tail light gives police the opportunity stop you whenever they’d like.  The cop, relying on probable cause, pulls you over for the bulb.  He immediately smells alcohol and begins an investigation regarding a potential operating while intoxicated situation.  He conducts horizontal gaze nystagmus, walk and turn, and the one-leg stand tests, you fail, and you’re arrested.  You weren’t swerving your vehicle or giving off any other indications of your intoxication.  You’d have made it home, but for your faulty light.

A $100.00 ticket sucks.  But going to jail and facing criminal penalties is a potentially life-changing event.  Poor vehicle maintenance could open this door.

I’ve been charged with a crime after a traffic stop.  What do I do now?

We think that one of the first (and most important) steps you can take after being arrested is hiring the right criminal defense attorney.  Not everyone who practices criminal law is smart.  Or capable.  Or even current on the law.  But we are.  At Van Severen Law Office, our job is defending individuals facing criminal allegations, and we’re good at it.  Whether you’re looking to hire one of our newest associates, or a partner, we can help.

Contact Van Severen Law Office, S.C. at (414) 270-0202 to start the conversation.  Let’s see how we can help you.

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