Let’s face it, if it’s after dark, especially on a weekend, the cops are trying to stop as many people as possible in the hopes of finding drunk drivers. But thanks to the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution and its prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, cops have to have a legitimate reason to stop and/or detain you. The legal basis for a traffic stop is more commonly referred to as Reasonable Suspicion. In other words, cops can’t just stop you because they feel like it or because you happen to be pulling out of the parking lot of a bar at closing time. An officer must have observed an equipment violation, moving violation, or have another reason to believe you or the occupants of your vehicle are involved in criminal activity.
Research has shown that a vehicle stopped at midnight has a ten times greater chance that the driver has been drinking than a vehicle stopped at noon. As such, equipment violations that officers would overlook during daylight hours suddenly become an excuse for a traffic stop at night. So how do you avoid being the subject of a traffic stop by an overzealous cop based on a minor equipment violation? First off, there are a litany of equipment violations officers look for in order to make as many traffic stops as they can, but what are the big ones to be aware of? Some of the most common equipment violations which turn into DUI stops are not having a functioning license plate light (my personal favorite), cracked windshields, obstructed license plates, having a headlight or tail light out or a tail light cover that is cracked, illegal window tinting, and not having mud flaps or fender flares on a lifted or altered vehicle.
So how do you avoid being pulled over for these violations? First, keep your car in good working order and be sure to maintain all the lights and signals on your vehicle. Many new cars check their own lights and give you a signal if a light is out. But if your car doesn’t check itself, it is important that you regularly check and make sure all your lights are functioning properly and are in good repair. Utah law requires that every vehicle has a functioning white light that illuminates your rear license plate at night, that the license plate be visible from a distance of 100 feet (during daylight hours), and that there not be any obstructions (think mud, snow, and bike racks) blocking the license plate. According to Utah law, all stop lamps must be red in color and all turn signals either be red or yellow, and neither can be emitting any white light. So do not install after-factory white tail lamps or signal lights, and make sure that if you have a cracked tail lamp, either replace it or cover it with red translucent tape until you can replace it. If you have a crack in your windshield more than a couple inches long, have it replaced immediately or you risk being stopped.
Many of our neighboring states allow a greater amount of window tint, and although it may make your car look good, too much window tint is a ticket to getting a DUI. A vehicle in Utah cannot have a windshield that allows less than 70% light transmittance, and front side windows cannot allow less than 43% light transmittance. Similarly any windows or windshield cannot be covered or treated with any material with a metallic or mirrored appearance, nor can you have any sort of poster or other solid items pasted to the windshield or any window. So don’t bribe the safety inspection guy to pass your car even though the windows are tinted greater than the law allows, or you may be facing a trooper with a tint meter and a breath tester.
Lastly, we do live in Utah and the state is full of four-by-fours and off-road enthusiasts. But along with lift kits and larger tires comes the responsibility to cover these oversized tires with larger mud flaps or fender flares. Utah law requires that any vehicle that has any after-factory lift or oversized tires have mud flaps that cover at least one half the diameter of the tire, and the tires are not allowed to project beyond the outside of the fender flares.
This is not a complete list but only a list of examples of the types of equipment violations officers look for in order to initiate a traffic stop. If you are stopped for an equipment violation and you disagree with the officer as to whether or not an equipment violation is present, the most important thing to do is to document the condition of the vehicle. If the car is impounded DO NOT remove the vehicle from the impound lot without first taking photographs with the tow employee present. Get the name and number of the tow yard employee and show them the evidence so that you have a witness to come to court to testify about the condition of the vehicle. It is also vital that you determine if the officer who stopped you has a video camera in his patrol car. Let’s face it, if it’s your word versus the officer as to the condition of your vehicle, the officer wins. But if it’s the officer’s word versus the video tape, the video tape wins every time. More and more officers are driving cars equipped with video cameras, which can provide the necessary evidence to support a motion to suppress and serve as grounds to have the entire case dismissed if the court finds that the officer DID NOT have a legitimate reason (Reasonable Suspicion) to initiate a traffic stop.
So be cautious and keep your vehicle and all of its lights and safety features in proper working order at all times if you want avoid an unnecessary traffic stop. If you are stopped for an equipment violation and it results in an arrest, be sure to document the condition of the vehicle promptly to preserve the evidence. And of course, contact a good attorney immediately!!