Supreme Court: One faulty tail lamp bulb doesn’t violate state law

The New Mexico Supreme Court building in Santa Fe. Justices ruled that one faulty bulb in a multi-bulb tail lamp doesn’t violate state law. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Keeping a vehicle in “good working order” under New Mexico law doesn’t mean that every bulb in a tail lamp needs to be lit, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The ruling came in an appeal by an Albuquerque man who was pulled over for having a burned out tail lamp bulb, leading to his conviction on a drunken driving charge.

“This case reminds us that not all vehicles on New Mexico’s roads and highways are in perfect condition,” Justice Shannon Bacon wrote for the court in its unanimous opinion.

The court concluded that as long as the tail lamp is visible from 500 feet away, it complies with the law’s requirement that it is in “good working order,” even if one of the bulbs isn’t lit.

The justices overturned a holding by the state Court of Appeals that all tail light bulbs in a multi-bulb tail lamp must be illuminated for a vehicle to be in compliance.

The case dates to 2012 when a man was pulled over by a Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office deputy because the upper bulb of his left tail lamp was not illuminated, but the lower bulb was lit. The right tail lamp was working properly.

The deputy arrested John Farish, 35, on charges of operating a vehicle with defective equipment and first-offense driving under the influence, court records show.

Farish was convicted on both charges in Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court. He appealed the convictions to 2nd Judicial District Court and then to the Court of Appeals.

Farish argued that the traffic stop wasn’t justified because the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion to conclude that Farish was breaking the law.

Requiring vehicles to be free of all defects “would impose an absurd standard for vehicles on New Mexico roads and highways because it would require that equipment be in perfect condition,” the Supreme Court concluded.

Justices ordered the 2nd Judicial District Court to reconsider the case in accordance with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of state law.

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