A tent vs. jail cell, you make the call


By Marie E. Matyjaszek

I renewed my license tabs, and noticed that if my plate was 10 years or older, it had to be replaced to ensure that it was legible. MCL 257.225(2) states a registration plate shall be “in a place and position that is clearly visible…maintained free from foreign materials that obscure or partially obscure registration information and in a clearly legible condition.” 

The Michigan Supreme Court ruled on a case Michiganders should pay heed to with the summer camping season. Before you hook up your camper to the back of your truck, be certain the trailer hitch doesn’t obscure the full view of the license plate. If it does, or if any other object obstructs the visibility of the plate, the police can pull you over for this offense alone. And if you’re like Charles Dunbar, it might lead to even worse consequences.

In 2012, Mr. Dunbar was cruising around Muskegon County in his Ford Ranger, with a towing ball attached to the bumper. The police decided to run his license plate, for no particular reason. Because the towing ball was in the way of the plate, the police punched in the wrong plate number, which made it appear Dunbar was driving the wrong car. As a result, Dunbar was pulled over by the police to explain himself.

Unfortunately for him, the police detected the odor of marijuana from his vehicle, and a subsequent search led to a stash of cocaine and a gun.

Naturally, Dunbar wanted this evidence suppressed, arguing the police had no legal basis to pull him over in the first place. The trial court disagreed, noting Dunbar had violated the statute since his plate was obstructed by the towing ball. The Michigan Court of Appeals sided with Dunbar, however, and reversed the lower court’s decision.

On March 29, 2016, the Michigan Supreme Court unanimously ruled the trial court was correct, and Dunbar was once again out of luck. This wasn’t his first offense either, having been charged as a fourth time habitual offender.

The moral is simple: Add checking your license plate to your camping “to do” list. We can all agree the natural comforts that come with a tent are far better than the joy of a jail cell.


Marie E. Matyjaszek is a family law attorney .


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