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A Better Partnership
April 01, 2016

Driving with a bike rack or trailer hitch? Beware: it can get you pulled over

In People v. Dunbar, No. 150371, the Michigan Supreme Court issued a self-proclaimed broadly reaching opinion that makes drivers who use bicycle racks, trailer hitches, or other vehicle attachments subject to a traffic ticket for obscuring the vehicle’s license plate.  Not only does this mean that an individual may get a traffic ticket, but also it can lead to the police discovering other potentially unlawful circumstances during the valid traffic stop. Defendant was driving with a trailer hitch that partially obstructed an officer’s view of his license plate.  Based on this, the officer stopped Defendant and, upon approaching the vehicle, smelled marijuana. The officer then conducted a full vehicle search. Defendant moved to suppress the contraband, arguing that it was the result of an illegal search because the officer had no lawful justification for the initial vehicle stop. The trial court disagreed because the license plate was obstructed, but the Court of Appeals reversed. It reasoned that the officer had no authority to stop the vehicle because the license plate itself was clean and visible, and the statute did not contemplate obstructions by towing equipment.
 
The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, noting that the statute imposes more than one duty regarding the plate’s visibility. It held that MCL 257.225(2) requires that a license plate be “in a place and position which is clearly visible.” This phrase means that the plate’s location on a vehicle must be in a location that is readable without obstruction. This duty to maintain a clearly visible license plate is separate from the statute’s other duty to maintain a plate that can be read, which, according to the court, refers to whether the plate physically has foreign matter adhering to the plate’s surface. The clearly visible standard requires that an individual attach his or her license plate and “surrounding attachments” in a manner that ensures an unobstructed view of the plate itself.  The Court, in dicta, noted that there is no indication that the statute imposes liability for plate obstructions caused by an object or condition outside of an individual’s control, such as fog or snow. The Court took special care to note that it is merely applying an unambiguous statute enacted by the legislature—even if it results in broad reaching liability as so many Michiganders use bicycle racks and trailer hitches.  

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