Michigan Supreme Court Upholds Traffic Stop Where License Plate Was Covered by Towing-Ball in People v. Dunbar

In the Michigan Supreme Court case of People v. Dunbar, the Court ruled that a traffic stop of defendant was lawful where the license plate was partially blocked by a bumper-mounted towing ball.

Facts of the Case

Police officers pulled Defendant over, claiming a mounted towing ball blocked one of the numbers on Defendant’s license plate on the back of his car. The officers believed the obstructed license plate violated MCL 257.225(2).

The police pull Defendant over. Police claim it smells like burnt marijuana. Police search car, find marijuana, cocaine, and a weapon. Defendant is charged with possession of marijuana, cocaine, and a concealed weapon.

Defendant argued the stop violates the Fourth Amendment and any search is fruit of the poisonous tree. Defendant’s argument was that police had no reasonable suspicion to make the stop. The trial court disagreed, ruling the towing ball blocked the license plate.

MCL 257.222 and the Obstructed License Plate

This statute reads: “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 that 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.” MCL 257.225(2).

However, it should be noted the law has changed since this case was decided. The law now further reads: “The attachment to the rear of a vehicle of a tow ball, bicycle rack, removable hitch, or any other device designed to carry an object on the rear of a vehicle, including the object being carried, does not violate this subsection. MCL 257.225(2) Amended.

On Appeal to the Supreme Court

Basically, the Court said the issue boiled down to whether the towing-ball blocked the license plate. Any obstruction of the license plate would be a violation of MCL 257.225(2), making the stop legitimate. A police officer may pull over a car upon witnessing a civil infraction.

The Court focused on the second sentence of MCL 257.225, which says a license plate must be positioned in a way that is clearly visible, meaning it can be viewed without obstruction. In this case, the Defendant’s license plate was not clearly visible because of the towing-ball in front of the plate.

What Can We Learn From The Case?

The case really just reaffirms the proposition that a person can be pulled over for a civil infraction which wasn’t really an issue. Specifically, the civil infraction here is that a license plate was not clearly visible to someone viewing it. The Court discussed this specific civil infraction in the context of a traffic stop.

The reality is that it’s almost impossible to not commit any civil infraction. (Notably here, the police conceded they did not pull Defendant over for any suspicious activity, but simply for the license plate obstruction.)

Take your average, run-of-the-mill drinking and driving case. The police officer generally does not know a person is operating under the influence when they pull the person over. More commonly, the officer sees the person speeding, or a tire goes over the lane marker, or a person makes a turn without a turn signal. Any of these common civil infractions could result in a person pulled over. Only then does the officer notice the person smells like they have been drinking, and goes from there.

Nevertheless, this civil infraction was updated on amended to take effect on August 14, 2018. The amended section allows for an object such as a towing-ball to block a license plate without violating the law. Had the law been changed, then essentially any person with a hitch to their vehicle could be pulled over. Or a person with a bike rack. A driver could never put anything on the back of their car without committing a civil infraction and risking a costly traffic ticket.

While I’m not sure what happened with Mr. Dunbar, at least some legislators recognized the unfairness of the civil infraction as written and interpreted by the courts. The Court in the opinion did recognize “[w]e 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.” Though the Court also recognized there was nothing it could as it is a judicial body and not the legislation.

Get in Touch

Call Sam Bernstein at 734-883-9584 or e-mail at bernstein@arborypsilaw.com.

Sam Bernstein is a Criminal Defense Attorney in Ann Arbor, MI.

ArborYpsi Law is located at 2750 Carpenter Rd #2, Ann Arbor, MI 48108.

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This case is captioned as People v. Dunbar, 499 Mich. 60, 879 N.W.2d 229 (2016)

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