At one point or another, just about everyone has driven with a cracked tail light cover or a broken brake light. Generally, police won’t stop you for these infractions, but if they do, the infraction alone isn’t enough to justify a police search or a breathalyzer. Unfortunately, police still often use these types of minor traffic crimes as a pretext to stop a vehicle and find a reasonable suspicion to search your car or question whether or not you have been driving under the influence. So while California laws says you can’t go to jail for a broken tail light, you can end up being arrested after police stop you for having one.
Is a Broken Tail Light a Crime?
Driving with a broken tail light at night is illegal. It is also against the law to drive with a broken tail light cover at night if it allows any white light to come through. You can use a vehicle with a broken tail light or light cover during the day, but you must be off the road half an hour after the sun sets.
While it is against the law to drive with a vehicle that isn’t properly maintained, it’s important to remember that there are three levels of crimes —infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Infractions are the least serious of these crimes and are only punishable by a fine. Driving with a broken tail light is the least serious type of infraction as it is considered a correctable violation, aka a “fix-it-ticket.” This type of ticket allows you to keep the infraction off your driving record if you correct the issue, have it signed off by a law enforcement officer, and pay a small court fee.
Can You be Searched for an Infraction?
While police can stop you for an infraction, that doesn’t provide them with enough reasonable suspicion to detain you further. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be searched legally. Once a police officer has pulled you over, if they see drugs in plain sight in your car, smells alcohol on your breath, or believe your behavior indicates you are under the influence, that will provide her with the reasonable suspicion to either search your car or ask you to perform field sobriety tests, which may include an optional handheld breathalyzer.
Unfortunately, there are a great many things that a police officer can use as reasonable suspicion. If you don’t believe the police officer had sufficient justification to search your car or detain you, be sure to give your attorney all the details you possibly can regarding your arrest.
Can You Be Arrested For a Broken Tail Light?
You cannot be arrested for an infraction. But if the police find illegal items in your car after finding reasonable suspicion to search your vehicle, they may be justified in arresting you. Similarly, if they find evidence to believe you are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they can arrest you and ask you to take blood or breath test to determine your BAC.
What to Do When Stopped for an Infraction in California
If you are stopped for any reason, including a simple infraction, do not talk to the police. You may thank them if they let you know that your tail light or headlight is out, but refuse to answer any questions aside from those relating to your identity or to discuss things further. You must provide the officer with your license, insurance, and registration but do not voluntarily agree to a search of your car or agree to submit to a handheld breathalyzer or a field sobriety test. If the officer pushes you to say any more than that, tell her that you are invoking your Fifth Amendment right to silence.
Anyone who believes their rights were violated during a traffic stop is advised to write down all details related to the event and then call an attorney as soon as possible. Peter M. Liss offers free initial consultations and accepts all major credit cards. Please call (760) 643-4050 anytime, day or night to schedule an appointment.