Road Worrier Blog

Road Worrier: Busted brake light still street-legal in North Carolina

Six years have passed since a Surry County deputy stopped a car with just one working brake light, confident in his belief that state law requires two.

Sgt. Matt Darisse was wrong on April 29, 2009. And he would be wrong today.

But in his confusion about North Carolina traffic laws, he was in good company.

“I suspect most of you here were surprised to learn that only one brake light is required in North Carolina,” John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said from the bench on Dec. 16. “Even if you are from North Carolina.”

And are you surprised to learn that our legislators have not repaired this little broken piece of North Carolina traffic law?

Darisse’s traffic stop was the start of a case that went to the top of our court system. It was pushed by a passenger, not the driver, who sought to overturn a guilty verdict involving cocaine, not brake lights.

In an opinion written by Roberts, the Supreme Court agreed by 8 to 1 that Darisse had been wrong about the law – but it was still all right that he stopped the car.

The Fourth Amendment says police can’t stop a car just because the driver looks fishy – as this driver did, to Darisse. They need a good reason, a reasonable suspicion that a law has been violated.

Drug arrests sometimes start out as stops for minor traffic violations: not wearing your seat belt, not using your turn signal.

Darisse figured he had an ironclad justification for stopping this car: Its right brake light was broken. The driver gave him permission for a search. Darisse found cocaine and arrested a passenger, Nicholas Heien.

Heien’s lawyers appealed his conviction for attempted drug trafficking. They argued that the search was invalid because Darisse had no legal justification to stop the car.

The N.C. Court of Appeals agreed with Heien because – and this fact apparently had never been affirmed by an appellate court before – North Carolina law requires only “a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.”

Nevertheless, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld Heien’s drug conviction, using a rationale that later would be validated by Roberts and the U.S. Supreme Court: Darisse made a “reasonable mistake” when he stopped the car because of that perfectly legal busted brake light.

“Requiring an officer to be more than reasonable, mandating that he be perfect, would impose a greater burden than that required under the Fourth Amendment ..., ” Justice Paul Newby wrote for the state Supreme Court. “In fact, it seems to us that most motorists would actually prefer to learn that a safety device on their vehicle is not functioning properly.”

The Heien case was filled with ironies, says Shea Denning, a professor of public law and government at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Supreme Court gave Darisse a pass for his widely shared misunderstanding about the brake-light law, but it won’t be deemed reasonable for another officer to claim the same ignorance.

“It’s clear after all this litigation,” Denning said. “It would no longer be reasonable for an officer to stop a person for having only one functioning brake light. That debate has been resolved with a great deal of publicity.”

Of course, there’s an easy way to dispel confusion among motorists and police. The General Assembly can bring North Carolina’s brake-light law into compliance with modern motoring and good sense.

It was in 2011 that the state Court of Appeals revealed that our cars and trucks are street-legal with a single brake light. The legislature has tried half-heartedly since then to modernize the law.

The House voted 112-4 two years ago to require two brake lights, but the measure died without a vote in the Senate.

Earlier this month, an identical Senate Bill 90 cleared the Senate on a 44-0 vote on April 2. Now it’s the House’s turn again; the bill awaits attention in the House Transportation Committee.

Our “stop lamp” law has not been updated since 1955.

“I think there are antiquated statutes in North Carolina that have just not kept up with the times,” said Darisse’s boss, Surry County Sheriff Graham Atkinson. “I think at the time it was written, lots of vehicles had just one tail lamp.”

Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican who sponsored the 2013 House legislation, says he doesn’t know why the Senate failed to act on it two years ago. But he trusts the legislature will follow through this time to right Darisse’s wrong.

“Of course we should pass it,” Stam said by email. “This is both a law enforcement problem and a safety problem.”

You could get stopped if you don’t ...

UNC-CH Professor Shea Dunning, who blogs about traffic and criminal court cases, says police could easily stop us for violating traffic laws we often don’t know about. Here are a few examples:

▪  Stop behind the white line. The wide stripe of white paint at the intersection is called a stop bar. Don’t roll past it when you stop for a red light or a stop sign.

▪  Observe the two-second rule. The DMV handbook advises drivers to travel at least two seconds behind the car ahead. Otherwise, you could be ticketed for following too closely.

▪  Signal before changing lanes. Just as when you turn, you’re required to signal before changing lanes if your movement is likely to affect the operation of another vehicle.