Sunday, December 03, 2006

Tail Light Justice, con't - #3

Well, with my court date looming, I thought I'd comment on my planned "legal strategy". Perhaps some of the research I've done in preparing for my own case will help someone else down the line... (Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer).

What ticks me off the most the whole ordeal is that since the cop pulled me over because my "taillights weren't working," but they obviously were working, well - that leaves me feeling (and understanding) that my Constitutional 4th Amendment rights were violated. I wasn't doing anything against the law, so the officer clearly had no reason to pull me over. Without such a reason, to pull me over (in my mind) clearly constitutes an "unreasonable search".

My interpretation of various New York State legal decisions I found seems to back up my opinion. An example is THE PEOPLE &C., RESPONDENT, v. CLIVE SPENCER, APPELLANT:

The question presented is whether the police may stop a moving vehicle in order to request information of the driver concerning the whereabouts of a criminal suspect. We conclude that the stop in this case was an unreasonable seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.


Although the right to stop a vehicle is generally analogous to the right to stop a pedestrian, police/motorist encounters must be distinguished from police/pedestrian encounters when the police are operating on less than reasonable suspicion. This is because "the obvious impact of stopping the progress of an automobile is more intrusive than the minimal intrusion in stopping a pedestrian" and constitutes "at least a limited seizure subject to constitutional limitations" (People v John BB., 56 NY2d 482, 487), whereas the common-law right of inquiry -- much less the right to request information -- does not include the right to unlawfully seize (see People v Sobotker, 43 NY2d 559, 563; People v Ingle, 36 NY2d 413, 418).

We have stated, time and again, that the stop of an automobile is a seizure implicating constitutional limitations (People v May, 81 NY2d 725; Sobotker, 43 NY2d 559, supra; Ingle, 36 NY2d 413, supra; see Delaware v Prouse, 440 US 645, 653 ["stopping an automobile and detaining its occupants constitute a 'seizure' within the meaning of [the Fourth Amendment], even though the purpose of the stop is limited and the resulting detention brief"]). Contrary to the urging of the dissent that we allow preventative "informational stops" so long as some articulable basis exists for that interference, police stops of automobiles in this State are legal only pursuant to routine, nonpretextual traffic checks to enforce traffic regulations or when there exists at least a reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupants of the vehicle have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime (see People v Harrison, 57 NY2d 470, 476 [an automobile stop is "a limited seizure of the person which at least requires reasonable suspicion"]; Sobotker, 43 NY2d, at 563; Ingle, 36 NY2d, at 417-420).

Since my taillights were functioning properly, there was no "reasonable suspicion that the driver or occupants of the vehicle have committed, are committing, or are about to commit a crime", making the stop an unreasonable seizure.

So, my initially intended approach was to have the taillight charge heard, have a not-guilty verdict rendered based on my photographic evidence, and then use that as a basis to argue that since my taillights were working, the "Failure to Provide Proof of Insurance" charge should be dropped since that ticket was issued as the result of a Constitutionally unreasonable seizure.

That's a bit of grandstanding on my part, admittedly. One doesn't generally raise Constitutional issues for traffic court. But, frankly, I find this cop's behavior to be outrageous. Having the fact that my taillights were working and he pulled me over without cause recorded in the official court record is really what I'd like to see in order to feel like justice was served here.

Looking into the laws behind the tickets issued to me has made me change my mind as to my approach, however.

(Also, btw, the interface New York State provides to view their laws online is awful. For no good reason it uses a.) frames and b.) JavaScript; neither is necessary and they make the whole thing an accessibility nightmare.)

The first infraction, the tail lamps (VTL 0375 2A3), isn't too big of a concern:

2. (a) Every motor vehicle except a motorcycle, driven upon a public
highway during the period from one-half hour after sunset to one-half
hour before sunrise or at any other time when windshield wipers are in
use, as a result of rain, sleet, snow, hail or other unfavorable
atmospheric condition, and at such other times as visibility for a
distance of one thousand feet ahead of such motor vehicle is not clear,
shall display:
1. at least two lighted head lamps on the front, one on each side,
having light sources of equal power;
2. if manufactured prior to January first, nineteen hundred fifty-two,
at least one lighted lamp on the rear which shall display a red light
visible from the rear for a distance of at least five hundred feet;
3. if manufactured on or after January first, nineteen hundred
fifty-two, at least two lighted lamps on the rear, one on each side,
which lamps shall display a red light visible from the rear for a
distance of at least one thousand feet; and

I can pretty easily prove that my lights work, and even if I couldn't, I have the Statement of Correction to rescue me.

The failure to provide proof of insurance (VTL 0319 01U) is where I'd get screwed though if my approach didn't work:

3. Every person who operates a vehicle registered in this state, or a
vehicle required to be registered in this state, shall, when required by
the commissioner's regulations, produce an insurance identification card
when requested by any peace officer, acting pursuant to his special
duties, police officer or magistrate. The failure to so produce such a
card shall be presumptive evidence that such person was operating the
vehicle without having in effect financial security required by the
provisions of this chapter.

Now this is an awful law if I've ever seen one. The intent of the law is obviously to make sure New York drivers have insurance. But this law doesn't criminalize not having insurance. It criminalizes failing to be able to immediately prove you have insurance.

If a judge denied my approach's planned motion for dismissal on Constitution grounds, I don't think I could prove myself innocent under this law. I had valid insurance when I was pulled over, but this law makes my handing the officer something other than my current insurance card "presumptive evidence" that I didn't have insurance at all.

Couple this with:

319. Penalties. 1. Any owner of a motor vehicle registered in this
state, or an unregistered motor vehicle, who shall operate such motor
vehicle or permit it to be operated in this state without having in full
force and effect the financial security required by the provisions of
this chapter and any other person who shall operate in this state any
motor vehicle registered in this state, or an unregistered motor
vehicle, with the knowledge that the owner thereof does not have in full
force and effect such proof of financial security, except a person who,
at the time of operation of such motor vehicle, had in effect an
operator's policy of liability insurance, as defined in section three
hundred eighteen, with respect to his operation of such vehicle shall be
guilty of a traffic infraction and upon conviction may be fined not less
than one hundred fifty dollars or more than one thousand five hundred
dollars or may be imprisoned for not more than fifteen days or both. In
addition to the penalties herein set forth, such person, upon
conviction, shall also become liable for payment to the department of
the civil penalty provided in subdivision five of this section.


5. The civil penalty for a violation of subdivision one of this
section shall be seven hundred fifty dollars.

And apparently I'm risking a penalty of $150 + $750 = $900 to $1500 + $750 = $2250 for this. (Note: not being a lawyer, I may be reading how those penalties apply incorrectly, but the potential that I'm reading it correctly is enough to concern me quite greatly.)

Initially, I was thinking I was risking like $60 on each ticket. Grandstanding is worth a reasonable risk at being found guilty and paying out $120. $2250, just for the one ticket, is quite a different story.

As a result, my hope is that at my court appearance, I will simply be able to provide my Statement of Correction and current proof of insurance and plead with the District Attorney to drop the charges, which is what the cop implied would happen in the first place, so I feel I have a reasonable chance of making this happen.

I hope to provide an update on how this all goes after my court date - stay tuned...

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