Can a police officer pull a vehicle over for having an inoperative center brake light in Maryland?

Maryland Criminal Attorney I had this issue in a case in the District Court in Baltimore City today. (The case was ultimately postponed so I will have to update the blog regarding the disposition of case). The facts of the case are that a police officer was travelling behind my client in her marked patrol unit. As my client approached a red light the officer noticed that the center brake light did not illuminate when the other two did. She activated her emergency equipment and pulled my client over for the purpose, according to her report, of issuing a repair order. She also ran my client’s license through the MVA computer and determined that his license was suspended at which time she placed him under arrest. Was this a legal stop?

The problem with the stop as I see it, is that under Maryland law, all motor vehicles are required to have TWO operating brake lights, not three. So the question is, does an officer have probable cause to pull someone over because the vehicle that that person is operating has an non-functioning but clearly optional equipment. In my view the answer is no. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals has not ruled yet on this precise issue but we can learn something about how they may rule by their rulings on some similar cases.

In a case called James Muse v. State, the Court of Appeals took up the similar situation of whether or not the police could pull a person over for operating a vehicle with a cracked windshield. The Court essentially said that even though there was no moving violation or other violation of the code committed by the driver, there was a safety issue and therefore the officer “was enititled to stop appellant’s vehicle to investigate the crack in his windshield and for the purpose of writing an equipment order”.

I believe that the situation in my case can be differentiated from Muse, because the Muse Court specifically ruled that driving a vehicle with a cracked windshied was a safety violation. The Court relied upon the language of the Maryland Code that deals with equipment orders, Section 22-101. That section states that a person is prohibited from operating a vehicle “with improper equipment” that “is in such unsafe condition as to endanger any person”. While this “unsafe” standard may arguably be met by driving a vehicle with a cracked windshield, it is difficult to imagine anyone arguing that driving a vehicle with the third brake light out is either unsafe or that doing so endangers another person. Indeed the State Legislature has tacitly said that this condition is not unsafe by not requiring the third brake light to be utilized by all cars in the Maryland Code. Said another way, if the State Legistlature thought it unsafe to operate a vehicle without the third brake light, wouldn’t they simply require every car to have one? I think the situation in my case is not one dealing with safety and therefore it is unlawful for an officer to pull a person over for this reason. We shall see what the court rules.

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