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The police are always looking for an excuse to stop a vehicle

Police cannot stop a vehicle legally simply because of a random whim. They have to have what is known as probable cause or reasonable suspicion or an ordinance violation or criminal activitiy. This standard is typically satisfied by a driver traveling over the speed limit, weaving in a lane, failing to signal a turn or having some type of equipment failure, like a burnt-out taillight or turn signal.

In Michigan, as in most states, police often use reasonable suspicion as a means of getting a closer look at a driver. The Michigan Court of Appeals recently decided a case involving a question of whether a slightly defective taillight provided adequate grounds for a police stop. The court ruled that an officer's perception of a dim taillight was sufficient to make a legal stop.

The driver was found to be intoxicated but argued the stop was illegal, as the taillight was functional, and was visible from 500 feet behind the vehicle, which is the standard required by the statute.

Two of the three judges on the appeals court panel, however, agreed with the prosecution that it was reasonable to stop the driver. The lawyer for the driver plans to appeal the decision to the Michigan Supreme Court, but they may not accept the case.

Police often use claims of equipment malfunction to provide their reasonable suspicion and allow a stop. The stop, in this case, occurred in the early hours of the morning, when officers assume the odds of a driver being intoxicated are greater. At that time of day, they may be on a "fishing expedition" and were looking for excuses to stop any driver they encountered.

It is a good idea to remember that any equipment failures or traffic ordinance violations open you up to the risk of closer scrutiny by law enforcement. Cases like this are troubling as they afford the police even greater discretion when deciding who they stop on the streets and highways.

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