Jan. 15, 2013 – A state appeals court recently ruled that Antonio Brown’s conviction for possessing a firearm as a felon must be reversed because police made an unconstitutional traffic stop before uncovering the gun in Brown’s possession.
Brown, who was previously convicted for armed robbery, was a passenger in a vehicle that police stopped. When officers searched the vehicle, they found Brown’s .38 caliber revolver.
Brown moved to suppress the evidence (the gun) on the ground that police lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause to stop the vehicle in the first place. Police officers testified that the car in which Brown was riding had a defective tail light, providing a basis for the stop.
Specifically, police said they observed an unlit bulb among the bulbs constituting the tail light on the driver’s side of the vehicle. However, the driver testified that all rear lights were in proper working order, and the unlit bulb police identified only lights up when braking.
A circuit court judge denied the motion to suppress, ruling that police could have a reasonable belief supporting the stop even if they were mistaken about the tail light. But the District I Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed in State v. Brown, 2011AP2907-CR (Jan. 15, 2013).
On appeal, Brown argued that the officers were not justified in making the stop because an unlit bulb does not amount to a traffic violation under Wis. Stat. section 347.13(1), which only requires two tail lamps be in working order but does not require all bulbs to be working.
The three-judge appeals panel agreed with Brown. “The statute does not require that a vehicle’s tail lamps be fully functional or in perfect working order,” wrote Judge Kitty Brennan.
“The officers mistakenly believed that the law required all of the tail lamps light bulbs to be lit; and ‘a lawful stop cannot be predicated upon a mistake of law.’"
Joe Forward is the legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin.