County Criminal Court:  CRIMINAL LAW – Traffic Stop – inoperable taillight – trial court erred in denying defendant’s motion to suppress DUI evidence – defendant did not commit a traffic infraction for driving with an inoperable taillight - 3 of the vehicle’s 4 taillights were still operable in accordance with Florida Statutes, § 316.221 -- Order reversed.  Dwelly v. State, No. 03-00062 APANO (Fla. 6th Cir. App. Ct. Sept. 8, 2004).

 

 

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR THE SIXTH JUDICIAL CIRCUIT

IN AND FOR PINELLAS COUNTY, FLORIDA

APPELLATE DIVISION

 

DAVID MICHAEL DWELLY,

                        Appellant,

vs.                                                                                            Appeal No. CRC 03-00062 APANO

                                                                                                UCN522003AP000062XXXXCR

STATE OF FLORIDA,

                        Appellee.

____________________________________/

 

Opinion filed ________________________

 

Appeal from Judgment of Guilt

Judge Sonny Im

Judge Dorothy Vaccaro

 

Christopher J. Dale, Esquire

Richard W. Bisconti, Esquire

Attorneys for Appellant

 

Erin K. Barnett, Assistant State Attorney

Attorney for Appellee

 

ORDER AND OPINION

 

            THIS CAUSE came before the Court on appeal, filed by David Michael Dwelly (Dwelly), from the Judgment of Guilt for DUI, entered June 21, 2003.  Dwelly entered a plea of no contest after the trial court denied his motion to suppress DUI evidence in which Dwelly argued that he was unlawfully stopped for having an inoperable taillight.  Upon review of the briefs, the record, and being otherwise fully advised, the Court reverses the judgment as set forth below.

            The record shows that on April 13, 2002, at approximately midnight, Deputy Dirn, of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, conducted a traffic stop of Dwelly after observing his vehicle with an inoperable left taillight.  Three of the vehicle’s four taillights were still illuminated, 1 on the left side and 2 on the right side.  Deputy Dirn noticed that Dwelly was weaving in his lane, but did not cross the lines.  Deputy Dirn did not have any difficulty seeing Dwelly and traffic was light.  Upon making contact with Dwelly, Deputy Dirn observed signs of impairment and initiated a DUI investigation.  Dwelly refused to perform the field sobriety and breath tests and was arrested for DUI.  Deputy Dirn also issued a citation to Dwelly for inoperable taillight. 

            On appeal, Dwelly argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress because no traffic infraction had occurred and there was no articulable suspicion of criminal activity.  In interpreting the evidence in a manner most favorable to sustaining the trial court’s ruling and in applying a de novo review of the application of law to the facts, the Court finds that the trial court’s ruling must be reversed.  See Nicholas v. State, 857 So.2d 980, 981 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003).  The commission of a traffic infraction gives a police officer the right to stop a vehicle and issue the offender driver a citation.  See Hatcher v. State, 834 So.2d 314, 316 (Fla. 5th DCA 2003).  However, under the facts of this case, there was not a traffic violation upon which Deputy Dirn could lawfully conduct a stop.

            Florida Statutes, § 316.610, prohibits the driving of a vehicle “in such unsafe condition as to endanger any person or property, or which does not contain those parts or is not at all times equipped with such lamps and other equipment in proper condition and adjustment as required by this chapter.”  This section must be read in conjunction with Florida Statutes, § 316.221, the section specifically delineating the requirements for taillights.  See Doctor v. State, 596 So.2d 442, 446 (Fla. 1992)(finding that Section 316.610 must be read in conjunction with those statutes which delineate the specific equipment requirements for vehicles).  Section 316.221 requires that every motor vehicle “shall be equipped with at least two taillamps mounted on the rear, which, when lighted as required in s. 316.217, shall emit a red light plainly visible from a distance of 1,000 feet to the rear.” 

            The plain reading of the statute applied to the facts of this case demonstrate that no traffic violation occurred as Deputy Dirn testified that 3 taillights were still operable.  Therefore the traffic stop was unlawful and the subsequently obtained DUI evidence must be suppressed.  See Doctor, 596 So.2d at 447 (concluding that since the vehicle had at least two taillamps in working order, initial traffic stop for “defective taillight” was illegal); Frierson v. State, 851 So.2d 293, 295 (Fla. 4th DCA 2003)(holding that stop was without reasonable cause as cracked left tail light was operating); Wilhelm v. State, 515 So.2d 1343, 1345 (Fla. 2d DCA 1987)(finding that motorist whose vehicle had four tail lights, only one of which was inoperable, was not in violation of statute requiring two operable taillights); compare with Williams v. State, 649 So.2d 1206, 1208 (Fla. 2d DCA 1994)(determining that traffic stop was valid as vehicle did not have two operative, illuminated taillamps during darkness).  The Court finds that the fact Dwelly was observed weaving within his lane does not change this conclusion, as there was no evidence presented that Dwelly’s driving behavior created a safety concern or otherwise constituted criminal activity.  See e.g. Jordan v. State, 831 So.2d 1241, 1243 (Fla. 5th DCA 2002)(holding that it is not practicable for a motorist to maintain a single lane at all times and that the crucial concern is safety rather than precision).       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Therefore, it is, 

            ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that the Judgment of Guilt is reversed and this cause is remanded to the trial court for action consistent with this order and opinion.

            DONE AND ORDERED in Chambers, at Clearwater, Pinellas County, Florida this ________ day of September 2004.

 

 

 

                                                                        ___________________________________

                                                                        ROBERT J. MORRIS, JR.

                                                                        Circuit Judge

 

 

 

 

                                                                        ___________________________________

                                                                        IRENE SULLIVAN

                                                                        Circuit Judge

 

 

 

 

                                                                        ___________________________________

                                                                        DAVID A. DEMERS

                                                                        Circuit Judge

 

Copies furnished to:

 

Judge Dorothy Vaccaro

Judge Sonny Im

 

Christopher J. Dale, Esquire

1726 East 7th Avenue, Suite 18

Tampa, FL  33605

 

Richard W. Bisconti, Esquire

718 West MLK Blvd., Suite 200

Tampa, FL  33603-3104

 

Erin K. Barnett, Assistant State Attorney