Can Police Stop a Vehicle for a Broken Brake Light?

The answer is: it depends. If both brake lights are out, then the car is violation of NC motor vehicle law, and a police officer may stop the vehicle. But if just one brake light is out, and nothing else unusual is observed about the vehicle or the driving, a police officer may not stop the vehicle.

In State v. Hine, a sheriff deputy noticed a defendant had a brake light that was out. One light was functional, one light was out.

Sergeant Matt Darisse (Sergeant Darisse), of the Surry County Sheriff’s Office, testified that he was “conducting criminal interdiction” on Interstate Highway 77 (I-77) when he observed a passing vehicle (the vehicle) driven by a man who appeared to be “stiff and nervous.” Sergeant Darisse pulled onto I-77, “observed the driving of the vehicle, and noticed that [the] vehicle approach[ed] a slower moving vehicle, appl[ied] its brakes[,] and [that] the right side brake light was out.” Sergeant Darisse testified that, upon observing that the vehicle’s right brake light was out, he “put [his] blue lights on to pull the vehicle over.”

The NC Court of Appeals held:

We note that the holding in this case, based upon the present language of the applicable statute, makes it clear that having a single operable brake light is legally sufficient, and that a vehicle having only one operable brake light is not a valid justification for a traffic stop. The statute at issue having been enacted several decades ago, retains an antiquated definition of a stop lamp, not reflecting actual vehicle equipment now included in most automobiles. We are well aware that the role of our courts is to adjudicate the laws as enacted by the General Assembly, and only the General Assembly, as our State’s policy-maker, can modify and update this outdated statutory language.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.