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Craig Mastantuono July 16, 2014

A defective taillight can be a basis for the police to stop a vehicle in Wisconsin, but the definition of what makes it defective changed today. The Wisconsin Statute requires that the tail lamp be in good working order when it’s dark outside. Until today, it was not clear what “good working order” meant. The Wisconsin Supreme Court defined it as functioning for the intended purpose. ¶29-30. In this case, the defendant’s 1977 Buick Electra had taillights that were each comprised of many bulbs; only one bulb on the driver’s-side set was unlit. Because only one bulb was unlit and there was no evidence that the driver’s-side taillight was not visible from the required distance, the State lacked probable cause and reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle. ¶38-39. Therefore, the gun recovered from the vehicle should have been suppressed by the Milwaukee County Circuit Court.

This is the right outcome. A violation such as this is like a pixel of a computer screen being out. It still serves its intended purpose, though it is not perfect. The idea that officers will now be unable to tell when there is a violation is disingenuous. This decision does not muddy the water, but rather helps to protect individuals from unreasonable intrusions of privacy by police.