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Traffic Stop – Tail Lamp Violation

State v. Laurence Evan Olson, 2010AP149-CR, District 4, 8/5/10

court of appeals decision (1-judge, not for publication); for Olson: Christopher W. Dyer; BiC; Resp.; Reply

¶11      WISCONSIN STAT. § 347.13(1) provides that “[n]o vehicle originally equipped at the time of manufacture and sale with 2 tail lamps shall be operated on a highway during hours of darkness unless both such lamps are in good working order.” WISCONSIN STAT. § 340.01(66) provides that “‘tail lamp’ means a device to designate the rear of the vehicle by a warning light.” We observe that the statute does not state that each bulb taken individually is a “tail lamp”; it defines a “tail lamp” as a “device.” Olson’s vehicle was equipped with two clusters of two bulbs each placed on opposite sides of the rear of the vehicle.  These clusters of bulbs function together as a single device. We therefore conclude that, consistent with the definition of the term provided in § 340.01(66), a tail lamp is a unitary “device” that may consist of two or more clusters of bulbs.

¶12      Turning to the facts of the present case, we note that it is undisputed that one of the two bulbs constituting the right tail lamp was burnt out at the time of the stop. The plain language of WIS. STAT. § 347.13(1) unambiguously requires that both tail lamps be “in good working order.” A tail lamp with a burnt out bulb cannot be said to be “in good working order.” Accordingly, we conclude that the traffic stop was valid in this case because the investigating officer had probable cause to believe that Olson’s vehicle was in violation of § 347.13(1).

And just why is that a lamp with one decent bulb is not in “good working order”? That it “cannot be said” to be so is something less than an explanation; indeed, is a declaration that explanation won’t be forthcoming. The court’s conclusion might well be correct (as a matter of statutory construction; though it’d be nice to see at least a stab taken at the legislative history), but hardly seems self-evident. If the lamp, even with a burnt-out bulb, can be seen perfectly well by other drivers, then why can’t it be said that the lamp is in good working order?

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Chris Dyer September 10, 2010, 12:40 pm

    Is a “tail lamp” “device” comprised of two “clusters” of a dozen LED bulbs each a ” unitary device” that is “not in good working order” if one of the LED bulbs goes out?

  • Chris Dyer August 27, 2014, 8:16 pm

    Turns out I was right (gloats and pats self on back). It only took four years to find that out. I told the Supreme Court that this issue was bound to repeat itself. Now to get justice for Laurence Olson: “The court’s second rationale–that “good working order” does not mean “perfect” working order (¶21)–is contrary to the conclusion reached in State v. Laurence Evan Olson, 2010AP149-CR (8/5/10), an unpublished (and therefore non-binding) opinion that the state cited in its brief. “

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