Clear your Plates

by: Matt Newburg

03/31/2016 06:09 PM EST

The Michigan Supreme Court has decided that your license plates need to be clear and cannot be obstructed by.....even a trailer hitch.  In a state partially bordered by water, the Michigan Supreme Court has officially warned everyone that if you tow a boat, jet skis, or even keep a trailer hitch on your vehicle and those things obstruct the view of your license plate, you can be pulled over by the police.  In People Dunbar, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the Michigan Court of Appeals finding that the tow ball on Mr. Dunbar's vehicle "partially obstructed the police officers' view of the truck's plate.  The officers therefor had a lawful basis for stopping defendant's vehicle...."

The Michigan Supreme Court was forced to interpret MCL 257.225(2).  In doing so, the Court first broke down the sentences in the statute.  The Court stated:

MCL 257.225(2) regulates the placement and condition of registration plates. The second sentence of that subsection requires that the plate be attached at no less than a specific height on the vehicle and in a place and position that is clearly visible. The third sentence of the subsection requires that the plate be maintained free from foreign materials that obscure or partially obscure the registration information and in a clearly legible condition.

The Court took issue with the Court of Appeals opinion chastising the court for focusing on the wrong sentence.  Instead of focusing on the third sentence of the statute, the Supreme Court focused on the second sentence.  The court said the law requires that the plate be attached in a place and position that is clearly visible.  The Court expanded that sentence by opinion "it requires that the registration plate be attached where it can be seen without obstruction and informs all Michigan motorists that "[u]nder it, a person must configure his or her vehicle's registration plate and surrounding attachments in a manner that ensures that the plate is not partially or fully obstructed."   The court concludes by saying "the statute therefore prohibits obstruction of a registration plate by an object attached to a vehicle."  

Michigan residents beware:  if this Michigan Supreme Court Opinion is read literally (which we are required to do as lawyers) that means anyone towing a fifth wheel, boat, trailer, jet ski or any other object behind a vehicle, you are required to move your license plate from its normal location to a place on your vehicle where it is not obstructed by any object that is attached to your vehicle.  

You can read the opinion here:  People Dunbar