A three-judge panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals decided Tuesday to expand the ability of police to stop and search motorists by declaring it unlawful to have a “dim” tail light.
The decision was made in the context of a January 5, 2014 traffic stop in East Grand Rapids. On that day, Officer Daniel Lobbezoo was looking for someone to ticket. He claims that he saw the tail light of the car being driven by Trevor Allen Vanderhart was dim on one side, even though he was in the opposite lane of traffic and only saw Vanderhart’s vehicle through a rear-view mirror. The officer was getting ready to write the ticket when he found he could elevate the stop into an arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI).
The appellate court was only asked to consider the limited question of whether Officer Lobbezoo had any business pulling someone over for having one tail light dimmer than the other. Vanderhart argued that his tail lights were perfectly visible from 500 feet, and that is all that is required under Michigan law. A dashcam video was available, and the trial judge agreed that it showed the tail lights were visible, despite the police officer’s testimony that there was a “safety concern” in driving with one dim tail light.
A circuit court overturned the trial judge, citing the US Supreme Court’s 2014 Heien decision (view case) that allows police to make traffic stops even when they are wrong about what is legal and what is unlawful. The appellate court also disagreed with the trial judge, deciding to believe the officer’s word after finding the video evidence was imperfect.
“Both cars were moving and at no point is there a discernible way to determine the relative distance of objects in the video, much less a definitive way to determine how far back Officer Lobbezoo was from defendant’s vehicle when both tail lights became visible,” the three-judge panel ruled. “Further, defendant was driving through a well-lit area for most of the video. The ambient light from the surrounding area made it difficult to discern the distance that defendant’s tail lights were visible from, and at some points made it hard to see the tail lights at all.”
The appellate judges disagreed, however, that the Heien ruling applied, since Michigan Code Section 253.686 says nothing about having a dim tail light.
“The record evidence does not squarely fit the category of dim tail lights that actually violate section 686,” the majority ruled. “Nor is the language of section 686 so convoluted as to be one of those rare instances where a mistake of law could be considered reasonable. In fact, the legislature spoke with relative clarity with respect to how a tail light must operate.”
In a dissent, Judge David H. Sawyer ridiculed his colleagues for suggesting a single dim tail light created a safety hazard. He also accused them of legislating from the bench by inventing an entirely new criminal offense.
“If the legislature had wanted to prohibit tail lights from having a different illumination level from each other, the legislature could easily have said so,” Judge Sawyer wrote. “The legislature’s not having done so, the lead opinion seeks to make up for the legislature’s failing and amends the statute itself.”
A copy of the ruling is available in a 300k PDF file at the source link below.
Source: East Grand Rapids v. Vanderhart (Court of Appeals, State of Michigan, 4/13/2017)