Colorado's law requiring vehicles to display red taillights 500 feet to the rear does not mean red is the only acceptable color, the state Supreme Court ruled by 5-2 on Tuesday.
In writing for the court's majority, Justice Richard L. Gabriel noted that a hardline interpretation of the tail lamp law would enable officers to stop certain groups of people at higher rates for taillight infractions after spotting slight defects.
Police "could initiate a traffic stop if the officer detects a hairline fracture in a vehicle’s tail lamp that emits the tiniest sliver of white light. Such an interpretation would serve no purpose other than to allow traffic stops that have nothing to do with traffic safety," Gabriel wrote in the June 21 opinion. "And such stops would likely disproportionately burden those in lower socioeconomic classes who might lack the resources to replace tail-lamp covers that have minor cracks but are otherwise fully serviceable."
The request to interpret the tail lamp law came to the high court out of Mesa County, where deputies pulled over Timothy Robert McBride's car after observing him fail to signal when exiting a roundabout. Law enforcement arrested McBride on an outstanding warrant and also searched his car to find narcotics and a handgun.
Prosecutors charged McBride with possession of a controlled substance, possession of a weapon by a prior offender and failing to signal. They also prosecuted McBride for violating the tail lamp law, given that his car's taillights did not have the customary red lens, but rather were covered in red tape and partially melted from the rear light bulbs.
State law requires vehicles to emit red light "plainly visible" from 500 feet to the rear. One deputy testified at trial that McBride's car emitted "some white light" to the rear, while another said the lamps "were emitting white light." They did not state, however, whether there was also red light in addition to the white.
A jury convicted McBride of all but the drug charge, prompting McBride to appeal. In July 2020, a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals reversed most of McBride's remaining convictions, but affirmed the tail lamp violation.
"(W)hen the Legislature says 'red' it means only 'red,'" wrote Judge Christina F. Gomez for the panel.
During oral arguments to the Supreme Court in May, attorneys raised the specter of kaleidoscope-colored tail lamps or lights that could reflect the Denver Broncos' colors — as long as the tail lamps still emitted at least some visible red.
"Say I pay someone $25,000 to paint my house gray. I leave. I come back expecting my house to be gray," said First Assistant Attorney General John T. Lee. "I drive by and the front is white. The side is white. I get to my front door and there’s one strip painted bright gray with the note: ‘You didn’t say all gray.'"
But the court's majority disagreed with Lee and the Court of Appeals, believing the literal reading of the law does not preclude colors other than red.
"It does not say that 'only' red light must be visible. Nor does it say that a violation occurs if a tail lamp emits any white light, no matter how small and no matter the distance at which such white light may be visible," wrote Gabriel. "It requires only that a red light be plainly visible from 500 feet to the rear."
He dismissed the safety concerns the government had raised, stating that as long as a red light is plainly visible, the infiltration of white light would not confuse drivers about which direction a car is traveling.
Because the testimony from the deputies at trial and the photos of McBride's car did not establish that no red light was plainly visible from 500 feet, the court reversed McBride's tail lamp conviction based on insufficient evidence.
Gabriel added that the question of kaleidoscope-colored tail lamps may be an issue the Supreme Court will have to address in the future, "but that question is not before us in this case."
Justice William W. Hood III, writing in dissent for himself and Chief Justice Brian D. Boatright, believed the majority's decision was naïve for overlooking the threat that multicolored tail lamps present to driver safety.
"After all, nothing in the statutory scheme (after today) would prevent someone from festooning the back of a vehicle with a rainbow of tail lamps if the lamps are legally spaced," Hood wrote. "I fear that the majority’s holding invites the use of multiple colors that could confuse and endanger other drivers and would undermine the Legislature’s stated intent."