PHOENIX - Bicycles headlights are not just required equipment for riding in the street, according to the Arizona Court of Appeals. Once the sun goes down, they are required - period.
The appeals court's unusual foray into the area of bicycle law Thursday was to settle the question of whether Phoenix police had the right to stop, question, and ultimately search, Brian Baggett.
Baggett admitted there was no working front light on his two-wheeler, just a taped-on flashlight that wasn't turned on. But his attorney argued that didn't matter, as his client was riding on the sidewalk.
Wrong, said appellate Judge Andrew Gould.
The judge said the law requiring a headlight at night makes no mention of where the bike is being ridden, which made the traffic stop by Phoenix police perfectly legal.
On top of that, the judge said, Baggett was violating a Phoenix city ordinance, similar to many other communities, which makes it illegal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk. So if police didn't stop Baggett for the lack of a headlight, they could have stopped and cited him anyway.
But it's not the citation Baggett was fighting.
According to court records, police were on an early morning patrol in an area known for high crime. The officers say Baggett riding a bicycle without a light.
State law says any bicycle ridden at night "shall have a lamp on the front that emits a white light visible from a distance of at least 500 feet," which gave police a legal reason to stop Baggett.
Officers patted him down for weapons, including removing his backpack and placing it on the hood of the patrol car. One officer said he smelled marijuana, leading to a search that revealed several baggies of the drug and a digital scale, at which point Baggett was arrested.
Baggett argued the stop was illegal because the light requirement only applies on roads, making what police found legally unusable in court.
But Gould said, "The plain language of a statute is the most reliable indicator of the statute's meaning." And there is nothing in the wording of the law that limits the need for a headline to bikes on roadways, Gould wrote for a unanimous court.
When the Legislature has wanted bicycle laws to apply solely on the streets they've made that a part of the law, such as the law limiting the speed of bicyclists but only "on a roadway."
Anyway, Gould wrote, accepting Baggett's interpretation would defeat the purpose of the lighting requirement which is to prevent collisions between cars, bicycles and pedestrians due to poor lighting.