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Hole in tail lamp no cause for traffic stop, appeals panel rules

August 5, 2013

An Indiana State Police trooper who pulled over a Jeep because a hole in its tail lamp emitted white light lacked probable cause to initiate the traffic stop that resulted in drunken-driving charges.

On interlocutory appeal, a panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals on Monday reversed Marion Superior Judge Becky Pierson-Treacy’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence gathered in the Northside Indianapolis traffic stop. After the stop, driver Brad Kroft was charged with Class A misdemeanor operating a vehicle with an alcohol concentration equivalent of 0.15 or more, and Class C misdemeanor operating a vehicle while intoxicated.

During a trial court hearing on his motion to suppress, Kroft presented as evidence a photo of the tail lamp that had a dime-sized hole but nonetheless emitted red light. I.C. 9-19-6-4 requires vehicles to have two tail lamps that, when lighted, emit a red light plainly visible from a distance of 500 feet to the rear.

In  Brad Kroft v. State of Indiana, 49A04-1211-CR-593, Judge Nancy Vaidik wrote for the panel, “Because both tail lamps worked and the tail lamp with the tiny hole was overwhelmingly red when illuminated, we find that the state trooper did not have reasonable suspicion to stop Kroft. We therefore reverse the trial court’s denial of Kroft’s motion to suppress.”

ISP Trooper Mike McCreary testified that he stopped Kroft’s vehicle because he believed that a broken tail lamp was a violation of the law. In the six-page opinion, Vaidik cited State v. Sitts, 926 N.E.2d 1118, 1120 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010): “an officer’s mistaken belief about what constitutes a violation does not amount to good faith. Such discretion is not constitutionally permissible.”

“Based on Trooper McCreary’s testimony, there is simply no evidence of any danger to motorists approaching the Krofts from behind, as the State attempts to demonstrate on appeal,” Vaidik wrote.
 

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