The United States Constitution protects citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” A law enforcement officer may effectuate a traffic stop upon “reasonable suspicion” the person stopped is breaking the law.
But how far can the law bend to determine what is “reasonable suspicion”? Pretty far, as it turns out.
Recently, the Michigan Court of Appeals (.pdf) ruled a police officer may perform a traffic stop, if the vehicle is in “such an unsafe condition as to endanger a person.” The Court did not define what would be considered an “unsafe condition.” Would a cracked windshield or an air freshener hanging from the mirror be an “unsafe condition”? What about tires with a few miles on them, or a gas cap not closed, or a crumpled fender? Short of factory-fresh condition, we could envision a vehicle somehow, possibly existing in a condition that could possibly “endanger a person,” effectively allowing police to perform a stop for any reason whatsoever.
In the early morning hours of January 5, 2014, Officer Daniel Lobbezzo observed a vehicle, driven by Trevor Allen Vanderhart. The Officer initially believed he saw one tail light not operating, but upon closer observation, observed it was operating, although dimmer than the other tail light. Officer Lobbezzo did not indicate Vanderhart was speeding, or weaving, or failing to stop, or driving in any erratic fashion whatsoever. Indeed, the only reason Officer Lobbezzo proffered for making the traffic stop was this dim tail light.
Michigan Law requires a vehicle to have tail lights that (1) operate when the headlights or auxiliary lights are one (2) is red and (3) visible from a distance of 500 feet. The Court of Appeals ruled Vanderhart’s vehicle (according to the evidence) complied with the law regarding tail lights. However, the Court made the determination the different brightness of the tail lights constituted an “unsafe condition as to endanger a person” and therefore the traffic stop was reasonable. (The “unsafe condition” being that a person following this vehicle could be lead to believe the person driving was braking the entire time.)
To further demonstrate how fine the line is, this is a split decision. (Michigan Court of Appeals decisions are made by three judges—majority rules.) The lead opinion decided the traffic stop was valid, even though the tail lights were operating correctly because the vehicle was in an “unsafe condition.” Another judge concurred (agreed), but disagreed with the lead opinion’s reasoning, stating the tail lights were not operating correctly, and would not agree a dim tail light is an “unsafe condition.” A third judge dissented (disagreed) with both for the simple reason that the conflicting reasoning between the two other judges makes no sense.
Judge Three: “How can both those statements be true?”
Simply realize this—if a law enforcement officer intends to pull you over, they now have more excuses to do so.