Courts Differ Over Police Stops For Burned-Out Taillights

But they tend to cut cops a lot of slack


Appellate judges in Wisconsin and Arizona disputed this month over whether motorists should be pulled over if their tail lights appear to be burned out. Wisconsin's Court of Appeals on January 15 overturned a circuit court judge who saw no problem with Milwaukee Police Officer Michael Wawrzonek's decision on July 3, 2010 to stop Antonio D. Brown's 1977 Buick Electra over its tail lights.

"It was the driver side tail lamp," Officer Wawrzonek said at trial. "There is a wide band and there is actually three light panels on that wide band and one of those panels was out."

This is consistent with the design of the lamp as the middle bulb, used for a brake light, is not illuminated unless the car is stopping. The circuit court judge ruled that even if the officer was wrong, he still had a valid basis to initiate a stop. Brown appealed, arguing state law does not require every bulb to be functional, and the three-judge panel agreed.