4/17/2013Indiana Appeals Court Upholds Stop For Dim License Bulb
Police may stop drivers of cars with functional, but dim, bulbs illuminating the license plate, Indiana Appeals Court rules.
The burned out license plate light has long been a favorite charge used by law enforcement to pull over drivers when the officer has a hunch about some other form of wrongdoing. Drivers rarely inspect these bulbs, so it is easy for them to burn out, unnoticed. Earlier this month, the Indiana Court of Appeals decided to expand the precedent to include stopping cars with functional, but dim, license plate lighting.
A three judge panel upheld the conviction of Thomas Porter for driving on a revoked license. His 1995 Chevy Camaro was stopped on May 12, 2011 because Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Officer John Montgomery claimed he could not read the plate from a distance of fifty feet. At trial, the prosecution entered photographs of the back of the Camaro into the record.
"If the pictures show me what the officer saw, then the equipment problem that caused the stop was a justifiable reason for a stop," Marion Superior Court Judge Grant W. Hawkins ruled.
Porter and his attorney countered with photographs of their own, which, they argued, was proof the plate was visible. Porter moved to have the evidence thrown out because the working plate bulb was not a legitimate justification for a stop. He argued if there was a problem, it was caused by the car's designers, not him.
"There's CFRs that manufacturers have to comply with, 49 CFR 571.108 that deals with lamps and bulbs and reflective devices," Porter's attorney argued in court. "This would be a different story, judge, if this was a kit car, a stock car, people would put parts from one car on and a part was damaged and they would put after market parts on and so forth. It would be different if it was adjustable, it would be different if there were two lights, the manufacturer had two lights on each... and one light was burnt out."
The trial judge was unmoved and denied the motion to suppress evidence. On appeal, Porter referred to Indiana Code Section 9-19-6-24, which states, "This section does not apply to a person who owns or operates a vehicle or combination of vehicles that... is equipped as required by under regulations of the United States Department of Transportation."
The appellate court sided with the state, which had argued that compliance with federal law only means the driver is not committing a infraction, but it does not eliminate the violation. The judges focused on Section 9-16-6-4 which requires a tail light be constructed so as to make the plate "clearly legible from a distance of fifty feet."
"Even assuming that Porter's vehicle met federal regulations, we cannot say that Officer Montgomery lacked reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop of Porter's vehicle when he could not see the license plate from fifty feet away," Judge Elaine B. Brown wrote for the three-judge panel.