Tow Balls In Michigan (Or Where the Supreme Court Hid The Sausage)
Mar. 31, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The Michigan Supreme Court just issued an opinion upholding police officers’ creative eyesight. It’s a fairly routine case, as these things go, but it’s a great example of how law evolves, in this case (at least from the defense perspective) for the worse. It’s also a great example of the disconnect between the sanitized clarity of an appellate transcript versus the messy reality of the trial court. Down in the weeds, this is how the sausage of criminal law is made.
The case went like this: two deputies of the Muskegon County Sherriff’s Department were on patrol when they saw the defendant’s Ford Ranger. The Ranger had a towing hitch attached to the rear. The ball of the hitch supposedly prevented the deputies from seeing whether the license plate read “CHS 5818” or “CHS 6818.” They ran CHS 5818, which was assigned to a Chevy Equinox. So they pulled the defendant over for “having an obstructed plate,” smelled the odor of marijuana, and in the resulting search of the vehicle, found marijuana, cocaine, and a gun.
The defendant moved to suppress the evidence, claiming that the deputies had no basis to stop the vehicle. The issue was MCL 257.225(2), which states that:
A registration plate shall at all times be securely fastened in a horizontal position to the vehicle for which the plate is issued so as to prevent the plate from swinging. The plate shall be attached at a height of not less than 12 inches from the ground, measured from the bottom of the plate, in a place and position which is clearly visible. The plate shall be maintained free from foreign materials that obscure or partially obscure the registration information, and in a clearly legible condition.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress, but the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed the denial, holding:
[W]hen the officers initiated the traffic stop they had no basis to believe that defendant was engaged in any criminal conduct. In addition, the officers testified that defendant was driving safely, they did not see him violate any traffic laws governing vehicle operation, and he did not engage in any suspicious behavior. They testified that the sole basis for the stop was their conclusion that defendant was violating a traffic law, MCL 257.225(2)[.]
The plate was well lit and in essentially pristine condition. Moreover, the officers agreed that the plate was legible, a fact confirmed by the photos taken at the scene.
The concurring opinion went even further, stating that the statute was ambiguous, and that the State’s interpretation of it would make it unconstitutionally vague. The concurrence went on to state that MCL 257.225(2) should properly interpreted to refer only to the license plate itself.
The Michigan Supreme Court agreed with the trial court and overturned the reversal. The basis for that holding was that the Court of Appeals had only looked to the third sentence of the law (“The plate shall be maintained free from foreign materials that obscure or partially obscure the registration information, and in a clearly legible condition”), but failed to consider the second sentence, “The plate shall be attached at a height of not less than 12 inches from the ground, measured from the bottom of the plate, in a place and position which is clearly visible.” (Emphasis added.)
Since the tow ball partially obstructed the plate from the deputies’ viewing angle, the defendant was in violation of the second sentence of the statute, and the stop was valid. The Supreme Court opinion addressed the argument that interpreting the statute that way would mean that all towing hitches and similar apparatus were illegal:
We are cognizant that Michiganders’ vehicles commonly have items such as trailer hitches and bicycle racks attached to them, and accordingly recognize that under MCL 257.225(2) common conduct may lead to what some might consider harsh consequences.
[W]hen the people wish to argue “that a statute is unwise or results in bad policy,” those arguments “should be addressed to the Legislature.” This Court is simply not authorized to alter the meaning of MCL 257.225(2) on the ground that it might potentially encompass common conduct, and we accordingly decline to do so. (Internal citations omitted.)
On the face of it, this seems like a reasonable ruling. The law requires that the plate be visible, and the tow ball obstructed the view, so the defendant is SOL. It sounds reasonable, but it’s total bullshit. Think about the original justification for the stop. It wasn’t because the ball obstructed the entire plate, it was because the deputies supposedly couldn’t tell if one of the plate numbers was a 5 or a 6. Think about the physics of the situation. If the deputies really couldn’t make the number out, all they had to do was move their vehicle a couple of feet to the left or the right to get a better view. Think about the logistics of the situation. If the only uncertainty was whether the plate was “CHS 5818” or “CHS 6818,” why not run them both? The deputy is glad you asked:
When asked why he had not attempted to enter CHS 6818 into LEIN, Van Andel testified merely that the decision to stop defendant was made upon learning that CHS 5818 was associated with a 2007 Chevrolet Equinox.
Here’s what actually happened: the deputies decided to pull the defendant for some reason that wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. Maybe he was Driving While Black, maybe they had to meet their stop quota, maybe they knew the guy from past dealings. Hell, maybe they were just bored. They made up a specious rationale to justify the stop, and the Supreme Court let them get away with it. Once again, in a rabbits v. ducks situation, the Supreme Court squinted really hard and decided that they saw a rabbit, albeit one that waddles, lays eggs, and quacks. If you decide to visit Michigan in the future, make sure you’re not towing (or even equipped to tow) something.