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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Michigan Supreme Court OKs traffic stops for partially obscured plate

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The Michigan Supreme Court ruled this week that police in Michigan can pull over a driver if a towing ball or other object is attached to the vehicle in a way that blocks the view of the license plate.

The top court acknowledged that commonly used items like bike racks and trailer hitches could lead to a citation or search. But it ruled that the language of the Michigan Motor Vehicle Code clearly requires motorists to attach their license plates where they can be seen without obstruction.

The high court overturned a Michigan Court of Appeals decision that suppressed evidence seized from a truck that was pulled over because a towing ball attached to the rear bumper prevented the police from being able to read one of the seven characters on the truck's license plate.  According to the opinion, the police said their decision to follow the truck was not based on any particular suspicious activity. After the stop, the officers smelled burned marijuana inside the vehicle, leading to a search that uncovered drugs and a handgun.

Bradley Hall, who co-wrote an amicus brief in the case for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan, said he's concerned the police could use the ruling for possible racial profiling. 

"The police can make a lawful traffic stop on a pretext of that tow ball or trailer hitch or bicycle rack or another common object in order investigate other possible criminal activity," said Hall.

The unanimous court decision said it's up to the legislature whether to change the law.