State AG settles blue-light debate

Opinion addresses use of emergency signals in funeral processions
Aug 7, 2013

A local senator hopes a recent opinion from the state attorney general will clear up a longstanding debate in the legislature.

At Sen. Mae Beavers’ request, Attorney General Bob Cooper outlined who could use flashing blue lights on vehicles, particularly in association with funeral processions.

“For almost as long as I’ve been there, there’s been a controversy in the legislature about who is allowed to use blue lights,” said Beavers, who was first elected in 2002.

She said lawmakers have even proposed bills to change the color of ambulance lights.

The larger impetus for her request, though, was to clarify whether funeral processions led by someone other than a full-time law enforcement officer could display blue lights.

“I think that people need to know what’s approaching them, whether it’s medical or the police,” said Beavers.

According to state law, only full-time, salaried law enforcement officers may display flashing blue lights – whether alone or in combination with another color – and even then only when their official duties require them to do so, said Cooper in his opinion.

Off-duty full-time officers, including those being paid for private security, may display blue lights in their personal vehicles if their official duties so require.

“As the Tennessee Supreme Court has recognized, ‘[t]he special status of peace officers in this state permits an off-duty officer to act within the scope of his or her public employment, even while otherwise performing duties for a private employer,’” said Cooper in his opinion, citing White v. Revco Discount Drug Centers, Inc.

He further said the same rules do not apply to reserve law enforcement officers, though. Reserve officers or part-time officers may only display flashing blue lights in official departmental vehicles with only limited exceptions.

“These limited exceptions do not permit part-time or reserve officers to use blue lights while operating privately-owned vehicles, including any vehicle provided by a private security company,” said Cooper in his opinion.

He said state law specifies flashing amber lights should be used on the lead vehicle for a funeral procession.

“I think [Cooper’s opinion] is pretty much what I thought it would be,” said Beavers.

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