A cracked vehicle tail light showing both red and white light justifies a traffic stop by police, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled in a split decision Thursday.
Arkansas State Trooper David Outlaw stopped Donnie R. Robinson on U.S. 278 in Drew County because his vehicle had a cracked taillight. Robinson was subsequently arrested for driving while intoxicated, refusing to submit to a chemical test, having a broken windshield, and having a broken tail light.
Robinson was convicted in District Court of DWI, refusal to submit, having a broken windshield, and having defective equipment. He appealed to the Drew County Circuit Court and filed a motion to suppress, claiming that there was no probable cause for the initial traffic stop and requesting that the court suppress evidence obtained as a result of the stop.
At Robinson’s hearing on the motion to suppress the evidence, Outlaw testified that, while he could not remember the exact statute that governed tail lights, he was aware of a statute that addressed defective taillights. During cross-examination, Trooper Outlaw agreed that Robinson’s tail light showed both white and red light and “part wasn’t broken.”
Circuit Court Judge Sam Pope denied Robinson’s motion to suppress. He found that there was reasonable cause for the traffic stop because Outlaw had reason to believe that Robinson had committed a traffic offense.
At trial, a Drew County jury convicted Robinson of failure to submit to a chemical test but found him not guilty of DWI. The court dismissed the broken windshield and defective equipment charges. Robinson was sentenced to 12 months’ suspended imposition of sentence.
On appeal, Robinson challenged Pope’s conclusion that Outlaw had probable cause to stop his vehicle. He argued that because there is no Arkansas law prohibiting a cracked taillight, Outlaw did not have probable cause to stop his vehicle.
The issue before the Arkansas Supreme Court was whether a partially broken vehicle tail lamp that displays both white light and red light creates probable cause to initiate a traffic stop.
Citing Arkansas law, Justice Courtney Goodson said the statute requires any motor vehicle manufactured after June 11, 1959, to be equipped with at least two rear tail lamps which emit a red light visible from a distance of 500 feet.
“This statute does not contemplate a taillight that displays a white light in addition to a red light,” she wrote in the majority opinion.
Citing another section, Goodson said “no stop lamp or other signal lamp shall project a glaring light.”
She said Pope correctly concluded that there was probable cause for Outlaw to stop Robinson.
“Trooper Outlaw testified that the red lens on Robinson’s taillight was broken in such a way that it emitted both white light and red light. Consequently, a person of reasonable caution could believe that Robinson had violated either the red-light requirements set out in section 27-36-215 or the prohibition against glaring lights found in section 27-36-216,” Goodson wrote. “However, this court need not decide whether such a crack results in a violation of one or either of these statutes because probable cause requires only that facts or circumstances within a police officer’s knowledge be sufficient to permit a person of reasonable caution to believe that an offense has been committed by the person suspected… In the present case, the fact that Robinson’s taillight was visibly broken is sufficient probable cause to believe that he may have committed a traffic violation.”
Justice Paul Danielson concurred while Justices Josephine Hart and Jim Hannah dissented.
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Hart said the majority made a fundamental error of law in its conclusion. She said the majority’s mistake lies in its assertion that the law does not contemplate a tail light that displays a white light in addition to a red light.
“This assertion violates our rules of statutory construction,” Hart wrote in her dissenting opinion. “We strictly construe criminal statutes, and statutes that are penal in nature, resolving any doubts in favor of the defendant.”
She said that while state law clearly states that a rear tail lamp must emit a red light, the prohibition against emitting white light is nowhere to be found. “The majority has taken as intended a prohibition against white light being emitted from a tail lamp that is not clearly expressed,” Justice Hart wrote.
“The error lies in the majority’s assertion that section 27-36-216 is applicable to the case before us,” Hart wrote. “Trooper Outlaw never testified that Robinson’s partially broken taillight emitted a ‘glaring light’. Accordingly, without any factual basis, it is error to hold that there was probable cause to believe that section 27-36-216 was violated.”