COMMENTARY: A court tale of a taillight

By Sean Campbell

I recently represented a client in a drunk driving trial in southern Michigan. As many veteran attorneys will tell you, defending a drunk driving trial can be a daunting task in this age of technology of dashcams and Breathalyzer results. This time, the jury found the defendant not guilty after a one-day trial—much to the surprise of the prosecution, who had presented the usual mountain of evidence.

As for why, I believe the jury felt my client was wrongfully pulled over and that there was an improper motive. At trial, the arresting officer testified she pulled the defendant over for a broken taillight and speeding.

I started my cross examination with whether the officer was familiar with Motor Vehicle Code Section 257.686(1), which states a vehicle only requires one red tail lamp to be functioning and visible from 500 feet away.

When the jury saw the dashcam footage, it was clear the defendant had one fully functional left taillight while the right taillight (though partially malfunctioning) was still brightly lit at 500 feet away.

I then moved my cross-examination to the other alleged reason for the stop, by asking the officer if she verified the defendant’s speed by pacing the defendant, or by using a radar or laser gun. The officer admitted she hadn’t used any mechanical means to determine the defendant’s speed, but rather relied on her unaided senses and confidence in her training and 25 years of experience.

The cross-examination went on to reveal the officer was being paid from a specially funded grant to seek out drunk driving offenses. While this program didn’t create the officer’s position, it does fund the overtime she and her colleagues spend looking for suspected offenses, or in her terms, Drunk Driving Roving Patrol.

In my closing, I made the analogy to the jury that arrests for officers funded by the grant are tantamount to statistics for a professional baseball player. Obtaining a higher batting average or more runs-batted-in (RBIs) means more funding ($) in the next contract for the professional player, just like drinking and driving arrests for officer's compensated through the Drunk Driving Roving Patrol fund.

I believe this monetary motive did not sit well with the jury
Sean Campbell can be reached at 517-853-9770 or