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Vehicle Stop for Center Mount Brake Light Failure

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A center-mounted brake light is not required equipment under the Motor Vehicle Code and regulations but, if it is originally equipped or installed, then it must operate properly and safely.

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Traffic Stop Attorney, Harrisburg, PA

In Commonwealth v. Muhammed, 992 A.2d 897, 2010 PA Super 44, 2010 Pa. Super. LEXIS 72 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2010), the Superior Court recently determined that any violation, regardless of how small and seemingly de minimis, of the motor vehicle code, still provides grounds to conduct a traffic stop. 

On May 23, 2008, an officer was traveling on the 200 block of South 51st Street in Philadelphia when he observed the Defendant driving a Chevrolet Caprice with a nonfunctioning center brake light in the rear window. The officer stopped Defendant's vehicle on the belief that the brake light malfunction constituted a violation of the Motor Vehicle Code ("MVC"). As the officer approached the Defendant's vehicle, the officer observed an open bag on the back seat of the vehicle. The open bag contained over two hundred (200) compact discs (CDs) and digital video discs (DVDs), some of which were duplicates of other items in the collection, all of which the officer immediately recognized as contraband. Accordingly, the officer ticketed Defendant for driving with a broken brake light, seized the bag of contraband, and arrested Defendant based upon his possession of the illegal contraband.

On appeal from the denial of a motion to suppress the evidence seized based upon the unlawful stop, the Superior Court determined that a reasonable suspicion sufficient to stop a motorist must be viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer. A finding of reasonable suspicion does not demand a meticulously accurate appraisal of the facts. Indeed, even stops based on factual mistakes generally are constitutional if the mistake is objectively reasonable. In other words, a traffic stop must be the result of a reasonable belief on the part of an officer that the Motor Vehicle Code is being violated. While an actual violation need not be established, a reasonable basis for the officer's belief is required to validate the stop.

A center-mounted brake light is not required equipment under the Motor Vehicle Code and regulations but, if it is originally equipped or installed, then it must operate properly and safely. 67 Pa. Code § 175.80(9) provides that a vehicle presented for inspection should be rejected when an exterior bulb or sealed beam, if originally equipped or installed, fails to light properly, except ornamental lights. Under 67 Pa. Code § 175.2, lamps qualify as ornamental only if they are not required and are not available as original equipment.

If you've been stopped and arrested by the police, never consent to a search of your vehicle.  Make the police get a warrant.  You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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