Failure to turn on car lights nets gun charge

The Minnesota Court of Appeals today reaffirmed one of the most ignored vehicle laws in the state: When it’s raining, you have to turn on your headlights and tail lamps.

The court made its declaration in the case of Catherine McCabe, who was stopped by Minneapolis police near Penn Avenue in December 2015 because it was raining and she didn’t have her lights on.

She also had a gun for which she did not have a carry permit, and she was charged on that offense.

At her trial, a judge threw out the traffic stop after McCabe’s attorney argued that the police did not reasonably suspect that she was committing a traffic violation when they stopped her.

While Minnesota Law mandates that a car display lighted headlamps and tail lamps at any time it is raining, the statute also mandates that lighted headlamps and tail lamps are required at any time visibility is impaired or there is “not sufficient light to render clearly discernible persons and vehicles on the highway at a distance of 500 feet ahead.”

Reading the statute as a whole, the intent of the law is to require headlight and taillight illumination when visibility is obscured by a distance of 500 feet ahead. The statute does not define “raining” but the squad video shows that it is very lightly sprinkling but not nearly enough to hinder visibility. . . . Consequently, the Officers did not have an
objective reason to stop the vehicle.

But the Court of Appeals panel said the law is pretty clear:

Section 169.48 requires drivers to display lighted headlamps and lighted tail lamps in three circumstances:
(1) at any time from sunset to sunrise;
(2) at any time when it is raining, snowing, sleeting, or
hailing; and
(3) at any other time when visibility is impaired by
weather, smoke, fog or other conditions or there is not
sufficient light to render clearly discernible persons and
vehicles on the highway at a distance of 500 feet ahead.

The appeals court said the district court judge combined the #2 and #3 provisions and then concluded that “even when it is raining, a driver need not display lighted headlamps and lighted tail lamps if persons and vehicles are clearly discernible at a distance of 500 feet ahead.”

Wrong, the panel said in today’s ruling.

The unambiguous language of section 169.48 indicates that the provisions are to be considered independently: “at any other time when visibility is impaired by weather, smoke, fog or other conditions or there is not sufficient light to render clearly discernible persons and vehicles on the highway at a distance of 500 feet ahead.”

The phrase “any other time” indicates that the impaired-visibility circumstance need not exist in every instance in order for the mandate that drivers display lighted headlamps and lighted tail lamps to be triggered.

Under the plain statutory language, rain is sufficient to trigger the statutory requirement that a driver display lighted headlamps and lighted tail lamps, regardless of the visibility of persons and vehicles on the
road.

The district court’s finding that it was not raining “nearly enough
to hinder visibility” therefore is irrelevant.

The court said that dashboard video from the police car showed it was raining hard enough to require windshield wipers, thus making the traffic stop legal.

The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the lower court.

  • MrE85

    This sort of thing even happens in Hartford. http://www.courant.com/breaking-news/hc-hartford-highway-arrest-1213-20161212-story.html
    The reason I searched for an image of Ms. McCabe is because I wondered if she was the type of person who frequently gets stopped by police for minor violations. It just seems like an odd thing to get pulled over for — at least when you look like me, that is.

    • I could barely make out a grey SUV that came out of the rain and drizzle the other day. no lights on. It’s OK with me if they pull these people over more often.

      • MrE85

        I can’t disagree with the safety aspect, but I wonder how often it happens.

        • jon

          It seems like when it starts raining (and everyone panics and slows down) cops switch from the radar gun to looking for no headlights/tail lights (probably preferring the latter since Daytime running lights have gotten so common).

          But that also means the cop has to get out of his car in the rain… and possibly stand on the side of the wet road as traffic hurls past…

          So they are probably looking for multiple factors to justify a stop and walk in the rain…

          Things like it being after 10pm (which is the majority of the times I’ve been pulled over) and the DUI statistics suggest making any stop is more likely to result in a DUI (and usually less traffic for them to contend with).
          Or a car driving erratically (the court document linked suggests the officer thought she failed to signal).
          Probably all play a part…

      • Laurie K.

        Even in instances such as the above case, where the district court found t was not raining “nearly enough to hinder visibility”? I see this as case as one more way to allow for pretextual stops.

    • Renae

      I’m a white female and I was pulled over recently for not having my lights on. Coincidentally (or not?), it happened on Penn Avenue, too. I had just pulled out of a gas station and was only 1 block down Penn when I was pulled over. With the lights of the gas station I hadn’t noticed my headlights weren’t on. The cop approached my car and I had my license and registration in hand; he said “I didn’t ask for those.” He then asked me if I lived in the neighborhood; I said I did. He then informed me that my lights weren’t on and walked away (no ticket or warning). I don’t object to being pulled over for not having lights on, but it seemed a little odd, especially when he didn’t even examine my license.

      • Postal Customer

        I’m sure he checked the plates.

      • RBHolb

        I had something similar happen some years ago. It was late night Valentine’s Day, and I had just pulled out of a restaurant parking lot. As soon as the officer concluded I wasn’t too drunk to drive (lucid replies, I suppose), he let me go with neither a ticket nor warning.
        Stops like that are legal, and are used to justify stops to check for something more serious. An officer can’t stop a car just because “something doesn’t look right” unless they can articulate what “something” is. If the worst thing they can find is a driver who forgot to turn the lights on, it usually isn’t worth the trouble of writing out a warning.

      • Rob

        Pro tip: check your “lights on” icon when heading out at night. If it ain’t on, neither are your lights.

        • jon

          My car doesn’t have a lights on indicator for the low beams.

          Just the position of the switch.

          High beams have to have an indicator (which is a legal requirement, spelled out in here: http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?node=se49.6.571_1108 )

          • Rob

            Good point; there’s a fair amount of variability among brands.

          • jon

            Even between models, sub models, and years.

            My wife’s car is from the same manufacture, it’s two years older, and has a headlight indicator (*Explative* thing drives me crazy) same engine, same frame, she has a full on wagon compared to my hatch back.

      • JamieHX

        I’ve heard that the police often stop vehicles without lights on because some criminals make a point of driving without headlights on.

  • Zachary

    So, what’s the legality of flashing your high-beams at an oncoming vehicle who is in violation of the above statutes? I know there is some restrictions about high-beams (or there was when I took driver’s ed) is it OK, or just a jerk-move?

    • Personally, i just flip my HLs on and off a couple times.

    • jon

      Court of appeals says it’s ok. at least they did in 2012.

      http://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2012/08/the_right_to_flash_high_beams/

      • Zachary

        I get a couple of “ask a Trooper” type links that said otherwise. Those were from 2014 and 2016, so I’m just as confused.

        • jon

          Troopers aren’t judges. Everything a trooper does can be called into question in front of a judge, and the judge can make the call on legality.

          Troopers job is to enforce the law, not to know, interpret, and/or understand the law, one would think they’d go hand in hand, but in reality there is a lot of grey area to be settled by the courts, and we don’t expect the police officers to pass the bar exam.

  • Doug

    Bob, thank you for sharing this story and other appeals court decisions. I find it fascinating when different judges read the law in exactly opposite ways.

    • BJ

      >different judges read the law in exactly opposite ways.

      FTFY

      different people read the law in very different ways.

  • jon

    I don’t turn my headlights lights off.

    When I pull the key out of the car the lights turn off… when I put the key in the lights turn on.

    When it’s dark I adjust the interior lights down, when it’s light I adjust them up… but the headlight switch just stays on.

    I have daytime running lights, but they don’t turn on the tail lights, and I’d really like the people behind me to see me before they hit me, so I just leave the headlights on.

    On the motorcycle I can’t even turn them off, the headlight switch only has a high and low beam option, no off. (which is actually the law for motorcycles they have to have a headlight on at all times.)

    • Tail lights too?

      • jon

        For the motorcycle?
        169.974 sub 5 (i)
        “No person shall operate a motorcycle on a street or highway unless the headlight or headlights are lighted at all times the motorcycle is so operated.”

        Headlights are on, tail lights are on, I believe that’s an NHTSA regulation.

        Edit: I can’t find any federal law, and no minnesota law that says that tail lights need to come on with the headlights… But from a practical perspective that’s how cars and bikes are wired… other states have laws on the books for this.

    • Rob

      I’m with you; main headlights on my car are on 24/7. And on bikes, the more tail lights the better.

      • jon

        I’m unable to really mess with the tail lights on my bike ATM.
        It’s centrally located, and also acts as the license plate lamp.

        But I’ve done my best to cover most flat surfaces with reflective tape.

    • KTFoley

      I developed this same habit when driving vans for an education program, where headlights had to be on at all times.

      I believed that people have no idea how hard it is to see their vehicle in rainy & cloudy weather. Maybe they don’t. Maybe, in brightly lit areas, they don’t notice that they have no illumination.

      However, this winter I flagged a woman down who was driving in full dark with no lights; she was grateful but added that all the automation in the car made it hard to know whether or not they were already on.

      • KTFoley

        Edit to add, as I get older and it takes more concentration to spot pedestrians and cyclists after dark, the lights-on habit is reinforced by the fear of hitting someone.

        I can’t be the only one who peers anxiously at the crosswalks and bike lanes in St. Paul neighborhoods. The last few years’ efforts to replace the streetlamps have resulted in picturesque and (likely) more energy-efficient lighting, but they’re really not as bright as the old ones.

  • joetron2030

    I see people driving without headlights on in the dark when it isn’t raining.

    The other frequent problem is someone driving with daytime running lights on at night assuming that their taillights are lit, too, because their headlights are lit when they aren’t.