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Tuesday, 10 May 2022 08:37

Equipment Violations – Beware of Fancy Customization That Can Provide Police a Reason to Pull You Over

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A recent case by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals highlights an ongoing problem with the availability of after-market modifications of motor vehicles.  Go to any car parts store, and you will see a variety of cool things you can do to your car, including special lighting, unique license plates and other accoutrements made for the savvy hot rod owner.

However, the Wisconsin Statutes have very specific rules relating to what types of modifications can render the vehicle out of code.  In the recent ruling, the Court of Appeals dealt with the issue of a custom blue light, instead of the factory white light normally seen over a license plate.

A blue light illuminating the rear license plate is an equipment violation and thus justified the stop of the defendant’s car. Once stopped, the officer had reasonable suspicion to extend the stop to investigate whether the driver was operating while intoxicated.

Section 347.13(3) requires vehicles operating on Wisconsin highways to have a white light illuminating the rear license plate.  The issue raised on appeal was that there are exceptions to this apparently categorical rule, citing § 347.25(4), which allows police vehicles to display blue lights, so the officer should have ruled out the possibility that this car was an unmarked police vehicle before stopping him.  Nice try, but it didn’t work. 

Apart from the general rule that an officer doesn’t have to rule out a possible innocent explanation before making a stop, specific provisions regarding the use of blue lights on police vehicles prescribe flashing, oscillating, or rotating lights mounted on the passenger side of the vehicle, e.g., § 347.25(1m)(a) and (b), and the plate light at issue was obviously not of that kind. Thus, there were no pertinent statutory exceptions for the officer to rule out before stopping the driver. On top of that, the court lists other common-sense reasons why its not reasonable to think an unmarked police car would have a blue plate light. Thus, the stop was reasonable.

This same rationale applies to any license plate cover that does not clearly allow the word “WISCONSIN” to be seen in its entirety, or any covering that does not allow the registration information to be clearly visible.  Further, no part of the actual plate may be covered by a see-through covering. Remember that anything hanging from a rear-view mirror may also be considered a possible obstruction to the driver’s vision.  All of these are reasons for a police officer to pull a vehicle over and conduct an investigation.

Hiring a law firm with years of experience dealing with these nuances of the law is your best insurance, in the event you are pulled over for an equipment violation.

Birdsall Obear & Associates LLC

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