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People v. Dunbar

Supreme Court of Michigan

March 29, 2016

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
CHARLES ALMANDO-MAURICE DUNBAR, Defendant-Appellee

         Argued November 4, 2015

Page 230

          Chief Justice: Robert P. Young, Jr. Justices: Stephen J. Markman, Brian K. Zahra, Bridget M. McCormack, David F. Viviano, Richard H. Bernstein, Joan L. Larsen.

          OPINION

Page 231

          [499 Mich. 63] BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

         Stephen J. Markman, J.

         This case arises from a traffic stop of defendant made after police officers observed that his vehicle's registration plate was partially obstructed by a bumper-mounted towing ball, a civil infraction under MCL 257.225(2) and (7). During this stop, the officers smelled burnt marijuana within the vehicle, leading to a search of the vehicle during which they discovered contraband, including marijuana, cocaine, and a handgun. Defendant subsequently moved in the trial court to suppress that contraband as the fruit of an illegal seizure because, according to defendant, the officers lacked a lawful basis on which to stop his vehicle. The trial court denied defendant's motion, concluding that his obstructed plate violated MCL 257.225(2) and therefore provided a lawful basis on which to stop his vehicle. The Court of Appeals, however, concluded that MCL 257.225(2) does not prohibit the obstruction of a registration plate by a towing ball and reversed. We respectfully disagree with the Court of Appeals and reverse its judgment. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that defendant violated MCL 257.225(2) and therefore that the police officers had a lawful basis on which to stop him. The trial court accordingly was correct to deny defendant's motion to suppress.

         I. FACTS AND HISTORY

         In the early morning of October 12, 2012, defendant was driving his Ford Ranger pickup truck on West Hackley Avenue in Muskegon Heights. Muskegon County Sheriff Deputies James Ottinger and Jason Van Andel were on a routine patrol and started following defendant. Ottinger testified that the officers' decision to follow defendant was not based on any particular suspicious activity. They nonetheless decided to check his truck's registration plate against the Law [499 Mich. 64] Enforcement Information Network (LEIN), a statewide computerized information system, which, according to Ottinger, is commonly done on patrol. According to Van Andel, a towing ball on the truck's bumper partially obstructed his view of the truck's registration plate; however, from his vantage point, the officer surmised that the plate read either CHS 5818 or CHS 6818. He entered CHS 5818 into LEIN, which returned as the registration-plate number for a 2007 Chevrolet Equinox rather than a Ford Ranger. Both officers testified that they decided to stop defendant for having an obstructed registration plate.[1] The officers then

Page 232

turned on their overhead lights, and defendant promptly pulled over.

         The officers approached defendant's pickup truck and could then see that the plate read CHS 6818 rather than CHS 5818. While talking with defendant, the officers smelled burnt marijuana coming from the vehicle. A vehicle search revealed contraband, including marijuana, cocaine, and a handgun, leading to defendant's being criminally charged with possession of cocaine, possession of marijuana, and carrying a concealed weapon.[2]

         In the trial court, defendant moved to suppress the contraband. He argued that he had been unlawfully seized under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and article 1, § 11 of the Michigan Constitution because the officers lacked a " reasonable suspicion" of an offense supporting the traffic stop. Therefore, he proceeded to argue, the ensuing discovery [499 Mich. 65] of contraband had been the fruit of an illegal seizure. Following a hearing, the trial court determined that the towing ball on defendant's truck had obstructed the officers' view of the truck's registration plate and thus concluded that the stop had been properly grounded on defendant's violation of MCL 257.225(2). Accordingly, it denied defendant's motion to suppress.

         The Court of Appeals granted defendant's motion for interlocutory appeal and reversed in a split decision. People v Dunbar, 306 Mich.App. 562; 857 N.W.2d 280 (2014). In the lead opinion, Judge Shapiro asserted that while the officers " had difficulty reading one of the seven characters on the pickup's license plate due to the presence of a trailer towing ball attached to the rear bumper," " the circumstances observed by the officers did not constitute a violation" of MCL 257.225(2) because the plate itself was clean and legible and the " statute makes no reference to trailer hitches, towing balls, or other commonly used towing equipment . . . ." Id. at 565-566 (opinion by Shapiro, J.). Judge O'Connell concurred in the result and wrote separately to state that the statute is " ambiguous" and " unconstitutionally vague" because it " casts a net so wide that it could be construed to make ordinary car equipment illegal, including equipment like bicycle carriers, trailers, and trailer hitches." Id. at 566-567 (opinion by O'Connell, J.). He thus read MCL 257.225(2) " to require only that the license plate itself be maintained free from materials that obscure the registration information and that the plate itself be in a clearly legible condition." Id. at 567. Judge METER dissented and contended that defendant's obstructed registration plate provided the officers with a lawful basis on which to stop defendant. Id. at 569-570 (opinion by Meter, P.J.).

          [499 Mich. 66] The prosecutor applied in this Court for leave to appeal, and we ordered under MCR 7.302(H)(1) that oral argument be held to address whether to grant leave or take other action. People v Dunbar, 497 Mich. 978; 860 N.W.2d 625 (2015). The parties were directed to brief " whether the license plate affixed to the defendant's vehicle violated MCL 257.225(2) where it was obstructed by a towing ball, thereby permitting law enforcement officers to ...


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