- Associated Press - Thursday, September 11, 2014

DETROIT (AP) - There is nothing illegal about a tow ball blocking a clear view of a license plate, the Michigan appeals court said, breaking new legal ground in a state where thousands of motorists use hitches to haul boats and trailers.

In a 2-1 decision Wednesday, the court said Muskegon County deputies in western Michigan lacked probable cause to stop a driver who was subsequently charged with possessing marijuana and other drugs.

Michigan law states that a license plate “shall be free from foreign materials that obscure or partially obscure” letters and numbers.

But the law “makes no reference to trailer hitches, towing balls or other commonly used towing equipment that might partially obscure the view of an otherwise legible plate,” Judge Douglas Shapiro said in the lead opinion.

The plate on Charles Dunbar’s 1990 Ford Ranger was “well-lit and in essentially pristine condition,” Shapiro said.

Dunbar was found with drugs and a gun after deputies smelled marijuana in his pickup in Muskegon Heights in October 2012. But the traffic stop wasn’t related to drugs: Deputies said they pulled him over around 1 a.m. because a tow ball was blocking a clear view of the plate.

“If police can’t see the plate, they can swerve to the right or swerve to the left,” defense lawyer Michael Oakes said in an interview. “Mr. Dunbar has a constitutional right to be free from illegal search and seizure.”

The evidence now will be suppressed unless the state Supreme Court intervenes.

“We think the reading of the statute is wrong. That will be argued to the Supreme Court,” assistant prosecutor Chuck Justian said Thursday.

Oakes told the appeals court that even former Muskegon County prosecutor Tony Tague had a vehicle with a tow ball on the bumper.

“I wonder how many times (Tague) has been pulled over and cited for obstructed plate,” Oakes said.

In a dissent, appeals Judge Patrick Meter said it’s “simply unreasonable” to expect police to weave in traffic to get a better view of a plate.

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Follow Ed White at http://twitter.com/edwhiteap

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