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Reasonable Suspicion Upheld Despite Working Headlight

A police officer must have reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is about to occur before initiating a warrantless stop or detention of a vehicle to investigate. But the suspicion must only be reasonable at the time of the seizure. It does not have to be proven ultimately correct. In the recent Tennessee case of State v. Mullican, M2014-01122-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 3-4-2015), the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed a trial court ruling validating a stop of a vehicle for having one headlight out when it was supposed to be on, despite the fact that both headlights on the seized vehicle later appeared to be working when the vehicle was examined in an impound lot.

On May 4, 2013, a police officer observed the Defendant's vehicle traveling on New Smithville Highway. The officer initiated a vehicle stop due to what appeared to the officer to be only a single working headlight. The Defendant pulled into a Waffle House parking lot. The subsequent investigation led to evidence of second offense DUI. The Defendant was arrested and his vehicle impounded.

After an unsuccessful suppression hearing, the Defendant pled guilty, reserving a certified question for appeal challenging the basis for the initial stop. The evidence at the suppression hearing established that the Defendant's vehicle had been examined while in an unsecured impound lot and both headlights were working. The officer had not investigated the condition of the headlights after the initial stop, as the investigation became focused on the more serious crime of DUI. The trial court concluded that though the headlights appeared to be working while the vehicle was in the impound lot, the officer's testimony was credible that at least one headlight did not appear to be on at the time the officer initiated the stop. The trial court did not have to determine exactly why the headlight appeared to be off at the time of the stop and appeared to be working later while the vehicle was in the impound lot. It only had to determine whether the basis for the stop was objectively reasonable.

The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the ruling of the trial court, concluding the later working headlights did not necessarily mean they were working properly at the time of the stop and that the evidence did not preponderate against the trial court's conclusion that the officer had reasonable suspicion of a headlight violation.

For more information on what facts might establish reasonable suspicion for an investigatory stop, contact Hindman & Associates.

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