Maryland Appellate Court Holds Non-Working Third Brake Light Sufficient For Traffic Stop

Earlier this week, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued a significant opinion in the case of Smith v. Maryland, holding that a non-working third brake light or “deck” light sufficient to justify a lawful traffic stop of a vehicle.

In Smith, the defendant, Marlon Smith, was observed by a police detective getting into the passenger seat of a vehicle on November 20, 2011. The detective further observed that, as the car drove away, the vehicle’s rear deck brake light did not illuminate when the driver applied the brakes. The vehicle’s other two rear brake lights functioned properly.

Based upon his observation of the non-functioning brake light, the detective initiated a traffic stop “[t]o inform the [driver] that the light was out, and to issue a safety equipment repair order.” Upon approaching the vehicle, the detective smelled the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the vehicle. The detective removed both the driver and Smith from the car and, while doing so, saw a handgun lying on the passenger floorboard in plain view.

Both the driver and Smith were arrested, however, Smith ultimately admitted that the firearm did not belong to the driver. Before trial, Smith moved to suppress the handgun recovered from the search of the vehicle, arguing that the traffic stop for a non-working third brake light was unconstitutional because it was not supported by reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity. The court denied Smith’s motion, and, following a trial, Smith was convicted of possession of a firearm after being convicted of a disqualifying crime, wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun, and wearing, carrying, or transporting a handgun in a vehicle.

On appeal, Smith unsuccessfully argued that the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress because a defective brake light is not a violation of the Transportation Article of the Maryland Code if the vehicle in question has at least two functioning rear brake lights. The law requires that, in order to stop a vehicle, a law enforcement officer must have reasonable suspicion that the driver is involved in criminal activity. This relatively low standard can generally be established by a minor traffic violation.

In affirming the trial court’s decision to deny Smith’s motion to suppress, the Court of Special Appeals analyzed the interplay between Maryland Code Section 23-104(a), which requires every vehicle to have lights “meeting or exceeding the standards established by the [Motor Vehicle Administration]” and relevant Motor Vehicle Administration regulation which requires that vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 1985, to have “a red high mounted [brake light]” in addition to two other brake lights on the rear of the vehicle. The Court concluded that, because the vehicle in which Smith was riding had only two operational brake lights, it was in violation of ยง 23-104(a) and therefore properly subjected to a lawful traffic stop.

The knowledgeable attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience litigating challenges to the 4th amendment and defending individuals that have been charged with crimes. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.