Beware the Defective Equipment Traffic Stop: Saving a Few Dollars Now Could Cost Thousands Later On

How many times have you seen a driver ahead of you in traffic with a burned-out taillight? While it may seem insignificant to some, a simple $10 light bulb could cause big trouble down the road. Never mind the accident potential of a non-working brake lamp or a faulty turn signal, just consider the cost of a defective equipment ticket. Oh, you say, a couple hundred bucks or so, I’m too busy. And, really, what are the odds? Well, in our experience, the odds are pretty good that something may happen before that bulb gets replaced.

But what if a driver, who happens to have avoided fixing that turn signal or brake light bulb, finds out the hard way that he just maybe had a little too much to drink with his buddies at the bar? That burned-out bulb is now one big red flag for a municipal patrolman or state trooper. Unfortunately, by the time this scenario plays out, the cost of that little bulb may have gone up quite a bit depending on the circumstances. In any case, it’s safe to that driver will be into the state for more than the $10 or $20 it would have cost to fix that light in the first place.

As New Jersey drunken driving defense attorneys, we understand that human nature can get in the way of doing the right thing from time to time. We’ve represented numerous drivers over the years who may have indulged themselves a bit too much when they should have eased off. It’s difficult to know exactly how much alcohol is in one’s bloodstream or whether a person has consumed enough food at lunch or dinner offset the wine he or she drank.

Unfortunately, the police are not interested in your dining habits. What they are interested in is whether you can pass several of their field sobriety tests; and if you can’t, what your blood-alcohol content (BAC) numbers might be. But this is the endgame, and we’re talking about the dangers of running afoul of the law simply because there is a small, yet critical problem with one’s car, truck or motorcycle.

More than a few New Jersey motorists have been stopped by a cop for a routine vehicle equipment violation only to find themselves a short time later sitting in the back of a squad car on the way to police headquarters. This scenario plays out week after week in counties from Sussex to Bergen, Monmouth to Cape May. The names are always different, but the story is just about the same.

One of the more common reasons for a motor vehicle stop is when a patrolman or state trooper suspects an equipment violation. This can be anything from a faulty license plate light or cracked windshield to simply a failure on the driver’s part to turn on his or her headlamps after dusk. The police have the authority to undertake a traffic stop because the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles (NJDMV) requires that every vehicle registered for operation on public roads be properly equipped.

If a driver is operating a car, truck, or motorcycle that does not meet New Jersey’s vehicle equipment requirements, a police officer is completely justified to stop the vehicle. In the case of non-operating lights — as we said, one of the more common reasons for a traffic stop in New Jersey — police rely on the law (in this case, N.J.S.A. 39:3-46 and 39:3-47), which states that a motor vehicle must be equipped with proper lights and they must be illuminated whenever the sun has set or environmental conditions create a need for illumination, such as rain, snow, fog or other factors.

Another related cause of a police stop has to do with a vehicle’s license plates. Although it is a rather weak rationale, the so-called obscured license plate has been the opening for many a drunk driving arrest on the Garden State Parkway and other thoroughfares around the state. While it may seem a poor reason to stop a car, the police nonetheless have the authority to make a traffic stop solely on the basis that a car’s license plate is “dirty” or otherwise obscured or illegible.

The good news here is that if it can be proven in court that the initial traffic stop was based on a false claim of an equipment violation, there is a very good chance that the associated DWI charges will be dismissed. While it is true that patrolmen and state troopers are somewhat insulated from a variety of potential mistakes they might make when effecting a traffic stop, there is no confusion that the actions of a law enforcement officer must always be reasonable.

If an equipment-related traffic stop was made erroneously — that is, if the vehicle’s equipment was not in violation of law — the stop will not be condoned by the court. A DWI or drug DUI offense that came out of such an erroneous police stop would be subject to dismissal because of the improper basis for the motor vehicle stop. This is one of the many reasons it is wise to consult with an experienced DWI defense attorney before going to court or admitting guilt.