Driving with overly bright headlights justifies a traffic stop, according to a ruling handed down last week by South Dakota's highest court. The court considered the issue in the context of whether a police officer can continue to pursue a traffic stop after realizing he was mistaken about the initial violation he observed.
South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Isaac Kurtz saw the vehicle being driven by Andrew J. Bonacker driving with bright lights in Sioux Falls on April 3, 2010 at about 1am. Trooper Kurtz believed the car's high-beams were active, so he decided to pull the car over for the driver's apparent failure to dim the lights for oncoming traffic. When pulled over, Bonacker showed the trooper that the lights were on the low-beam setting, demonstrating the high-beam against the wall of a nearby building.
"OK, they're really bright, huh?" Trooper Kurtz observed at the scene.
According to his testimony, Trooper Kurtz was satisfied at this point that the lights were just brighter than normal rather than on the high-beam setting, so he asked Bonacker for his driver's license. Bonacker could not comply because his license had been revoked. The driver was placed under arrest. At trial, Bonacker was convicted and sentenced to ninety days in jail (eighty-five days suspended) and a $200 fine. Bonacker argued his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when the trooper asked for his license after the probable cause that a crime had been committed, the failure to dim his lights, disappeared.
The Supreme Court justices believed the trooper was entitled to continue the traffic stop because it did not take very long to ask Bonacker more questions.