So when was the last time you checked if all three of your brake lights were working?
If you don’t want to get pulled over, you’d better start.
State lawmakers are moving to require that all lights are working. That even includes the “Liddy light,” the one in the middle.
And the reason is to ensure that police can stop a motorist even if just one light is out.
What’s behind all that is a 2011 ruling by the state Court of Appeals throwing out a motorist’s drunken-driving conviction.
It turns out that the only reason a Tucson police officer pulled over the driver in the first place was a non-working middle brake light. It was only after the person was stopped that the officer realized he was impaired and made the arrest.
Appellate Judge Joseph Howard, writing for the court, said it is undisputed that the other two lights were functional.
“The officer observed no other traffic infractions, nor did the officer articulate any other reason for the stop,” the judge wrote.
Howard said police are entitled to “stop and detain” any person for an actual or suspected violation of the state’s motor-vehicle laws. But he said stopping a vehicle is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Such a seizure is constitutionally permissible only if the officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity,” Howard wrote.
And he said a reading of the statutes shows there was no such activity.
Arizona law says any motor vehicle “shall be equipped with at least one tail lamp mounted on the rear.” And another provision says if a vehicle has a stop lamp “the lamp shall be maintained at all times in good working condition.”
Put simply, one is all that current law requires.
HB 2509 would say that if a vehicle has more than one stop lamp or tail lamp, each has to be working. And that includes the “Liddy light,” named after Elizabeth “Liddy” Dole who was secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation when federal law was changed to require that third stop lamp.
Mike Williams, lobbyist for the Arizona Police Association, said the law is “archaic,” potentially dating back to horse-and-buggy days. But he conceded in testimony before a House panel that this was all about giving police the legally required probable cause to stop motorists in the first place.
Williams said that ruling was not a one-time thing. He said there’s a judge in Tucson who has been tossing drunk-driving cases when police tell him the only reason for the stop was a single busted tail light.
And he insisted that it’s not to provide an excuse to issue more citations.
Just to be sure, lawmakers amended the measure this past week when it came to the House floor to spell out that a ticket cannot be issued for a first violation. Instead, the measure awaiting final House approval says that officers may issue only verbal or written warning notices.
Williams said he’s OK with that.
“That’s primarily what police officers do anyway when we find it’s just a non-working piece of equipment,” he said.
Not everyone was convinced the change is a good thing.
Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said the way HB 2509 is worded would let police stop a motorist if any light installed on a vehicle is not working. She said that could be as simple as the turn signal lights that some cars and trucks have on their side mirrors, in addition to the ones on the front and rear of the vehicles.
“I have one of those lamps on my car,” Williams told her. But he dismissed her concerns.
“Officers are not going to be pulling someone over because their lamp on the mirror didn’t work,” he said.
And Williams had one more argument to push the measure.
“Ted Bundy was caught because he did not have a working tail light,” he said, referring to the serial killer, kidnapper and rapist who murdered young women in a multi-state killing spree in the 1970s before being captured.
The language in HB 2509 should do the trick. Even Larry Gee, the defense attorney who had that drunken-driving conviction voided, said at the time that it would take only a simple fix to allow a broken tail light to be grounds to stop motorists.