DUI dismissed due to mistake of law by arresting officer
VL was arrested by local police officer for having one of two lights that illuminate the rear tag burned out. The officer believed both lights were required to be functioning. However, the municipal ordinance does not state: "two lamps are required to illumiate the plate." Rather, the ordinance states: "a lamp is required to illuminate the plate and it must be legible from a distance of 50 feet." This language mirrors the state law. Therefore, the current law does not require two lamps. The mistaken belief that both lamps are necessary falls on the idea that "all the officers in the department believe both lamps are required," as per the arresting officer's testimony. How, the plain language of the ordinance states otherwise. Furthermore, there is persuasive authority from a court of appeals case from 2018. State v. Lees held that a vehicle only needs 2 of 3 brake lights to function in order to meet state law guidelines. In Lees, the driver was stopped for having a burned out brake light, even though the right brake light and the top center brake light worked correctly. The left light was burned out. In that case, the Court of Appeals upheld the district court's ruling that the officer's mistake of law was not reasonable, holding that an officer should understand the laws he is charged with enforcing and the brake light laws are very clear: two lights must be operational and a third light (as in the Lees case) that is not functioning does not give rise to reasonable suspicion.
The lesson in this case is two-fold: 1) always read the applicable state law or city ordinance so you can determine the "elements" of the law and 2) always review the video to determine if the officer made a mistake of law when interpreting the ordinance or law. In our case, it was evident the license plate was legible from 50 feet and that one of the bulbs was functioning and lighting the plate. Therefore, my client did not violate the law and the stop of his vehicle soley because the tag light issue was unlawful. The District Court judge granted our motion to suppress and the DUI charge dismissed.
Practice area(s): DUI / DWI