July 17, 2014 – Two Milwaukee police officers stopped a vehicle for a faulty tail light. Upon a search of the vehicle, they found a gun. Recently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned a defendant’s resulting gun conviction because the police stop was illegal.
The police officers who stopped the car believed that all light bulbs in a vehicle’s tail light must be working to be legal. Not so, according to a supreme court majority.
Under Wis. Stat. section 347.13(1), it’s illegal to operate a vehicle at night unless tail lamps “are in good working order” and visible from 500 feet. But that doesn’t mean the tail light must be perfect, according to the recent decision by a supreme court majority.
In State v. Brown, 2014 WI 69 (July 16, 2014), the Wisconsin Supreme Court (4-3) ruled that a tail light can still be “in good working order” if a light bulb is out. Thus, the court ruled that the officers made an illegal stop, and the subsequent search was also illegal.
“Where the stop of the vehicle was unlawful, so too was its search, and the results of that search must be suppressed,” wrote Justice Ann Walsh Bradley for the majority.
Justices Patience Roggensack, David Prosser, and Annette Ziegler dissented. Justice Prosser said the majority’s approach “creates a vague, unworkable standard for law enforcement.” Roggensack and Ziegler said the officers could have reasonably believed the tail lamp violated the law, and a reasonable belief is enough for probable cause.
Unlawful Tail Light?
Brown was a passenger in a 1977 Buick that police officers stopped on a summer night in July 2010. According to the officers, they thought the car had a defective tail light. They said the car had three light panels on one side, and one panel (bulb) was out.
They asked to search the vehicle and the search produced a .38 caliber revolver. It belonged to Brown, and Brown was a convicted felon. Thus, he was ultimately charged as a felon in possession of a firearm. After the court denied Brown’s motion to suppress, he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to three years in prison, two years of supervision.
The circuit court denied Brown’s postconviction motion for relief and he appealed. The court of appeals ruled that Brown’s conviction should be reversed because the stop was illegal. Upon supreme court review, five justices agreed with the court of appeals.
First, the court ruled that the unlit light bulb did not constitute a violation of section 347.13(1), because the tail light as a whole was still in “good working order.”
“We do not agree with the State that when read in context of surrounding statutes Wis. Stat § 347.13(1) requires all light bulbs in a tail lamp to be lit,” Justice Bradley wrote, noting that the statute does not require the tail light to be “perfect,” just functional.
The majority noted that today’s vehicles have different and sometimes intricate tail light designs – including one Audi model that has a tail lamp with 30 light bulbs – so a ruling in favor of “perfect” functionality would lead to absurd results.
“It would be unreasonable to require the public to maintain every light bulb in a tail lamp in perfect condition when that is more than is required by the statute,” Bradley wrote.
Based on this ruling, the majority rejected the state’s argument that police had probable cause because they reasonably believed that the imperfect tail light was illegal, noting an officer’s reasonable suspicion cannot be based a misinterpretation or mistake of law.
Justice Prosser wrote a dissenting opinion, arguing that the majority opinion “creates a vague, unworkable standard” by ruling that vehicles with partially unlit tail lamps still comply with Wis. Stat. section 374.13(1). He said the court should provide a clear standard: if a tail light or brake lamp is out, it is not in good working order.
“Now that law enforcement officers are precluded from pulling over vehicles with flawed tail lamps if the tail lamps are visible from 500 feet, there is likely to be a bonanza for litigants seeking to challenge motor vehicle stops,” Justice Prosser wrote.
Justice Roggensack wrote a separate dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Ziegler. Roggensack said a police officer’s mistake or misinterpretation of law does not always preclude a decision that police had probable cause to stop a vehicle.
“I conclude that the legality of a stop depends on whether under the totality of the circumstances a reasonable officer could have believed that a law violation was occurring,” Roggensack wrote. “[U]nder the totality of the circumstances a reasonable officer could have believed that Brown’s tail lamp violated § 347.13(1).”