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DUI case tossed over brake-light stop

DUI case tossed over brake-light stop

Nonfunctional signal didn't justify stopping driver, AZ court says

  • Updated

When it comes to brake lights, one is enough, at least according to the state Court of Appeals.

In a unanimous decision, the judges threw out the drunken-driving conviction of Tucsonan Aaron Fikes.

The court did not address whether Fikes was, in fact, impaired when he was stopped. Instead, the judges concluded police had no legal reason to pull him over in the first place.

Assistant Attorney General Kent Cattani promised an appeal to Friday's ruling. He said that even if Fikes was doing nothing that was technically illegal to draw the attention of police, he believes that should not preclude the motorist from being stopped to at least tell him or her of the burned-out light.

Court records show that a Tucson police officer stopped the vehicle Fikes was driving because the top center brake light on his sport utility vehicle was not working. But Judge Joseph Howard, writing for the court, said it is undisputed that the other two lights were functional.

"The officer observed no other traffic infractions, nor did the officer articulate any other reason for the stop," Howard wrote.

A trial judge refused to dismiss the case, and Fikes, a Tucson resident, was convicted of drunken driving while on a suspended license. He was sentenced to four months in jail followed by three years of probation.

Howard said police are entitled to "stop and detain" any person for an actual or suspected violation of the state's motor vehicle laws. But he said stopping a vehicle is a seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"Such a seizure is constitutionally permissible only if the officer has a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity," Howard wrote.

In this case, the judge said, state law says that if a vehicle is equipped with a stop lamp, "the lamp or lamps shall be maintained at all times in good working condition." He said a plain reading of that language means a vehicle need have only a single brake light.

Howard noted that prosecutors argued that lawmakers may have wanted all brake lights to work because a nonfunctioning light could confuse other drivers.

"However, the legislative history does not indicate that the Legislature was concerned with this possibility," the judge wrote. "And nothing in the record indicates any other driver was or could have been confused here."

And Howard said if that's not what lawmakers meant, they are "free to correct our mistake."

Defense attorney Larry Gee said that fix would be simple: He said lawmakers could amend the law so the law would read "the lamps shall be maintained." But he said they did not do that, making the initial stop of his client improper.

Cattani said the ruling is a mistake and believes that stopping vehicles with nonworking equipment is something that Arizonans want their police officers to do.

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