Drunk driving arrest in disputed Grand Rapids traffic stop is valid, Court of Appeals says

Drunk driving appeal upheld

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - The Michigan Court of Appeals has reinstated a drunk driving conviction for a Grand Rapids man who was initially stopped for having what an officer thought was a burned-out taillight.

The taillight was not burned out – just dimmer than the other. But that does not negate the drunk driving arrest and eventual conviction of Trevor Allen Vanderhart, the Court of Appeals said in a 2-1 decision released Wednesday.

“Can an officer stop a vehicle because of a dim taillight? Yes, at least under the circumstances of this case,’’ justices wrote in an 11-page decision.

Defense attorney Craig W. Haehnel, who handled the appeal, said the decision opens the door for traffic stops based on what is perceived to be defective equipment.

“The upshot is you better be driving a brand new car if you don’t want to get pulled over,’’ he said. “It has an awful chilling effect that a police officer can pull someone over because he perceives one light to be darker than the other.‘’

The decision follows a three-year legal battle that started in district court and moved to Kent County Circuit Court before landing on the Court of Appeals docket in February.

Vanderhart was driving on Plymouth Road SE early on Jan. 5, 2014 when East Grand Rapids officer Daniel Lobbezoo saw in his rearview mirror what he thought was a burned-out taillight. Lobbezoo turned around and followed Vanderhart’s vehicle into Grand Rapids. Dash-cam video shows both taillights in working order, but the passenger side light was dimmer than the other.

He eventually stopped Vanderhart’s Audi on Wealthy Street just west of Fuller Avenue SE. “When he approached the vehicle, he smelled alcohol and saw the defendant’s eyes were glassy and bloodshot,’’ according to court records.

A breath test at the scene indicated a blood alcohol level of .11 percent; the threshold for drunk driving in Michigan is .08 percent. A test performed at the Kent County Jail registered a blood alcohol level of .13 percent.

Before the case went to trial in 63rd District Court, Vanderhart’s lawyer filed a motion to suppress evidence obtained from the traffic stop, saying Lobbezoo lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the driver. Under Michigan law, taillights must be visible from 500 feet. Haehnel contends that standard was met.

A visiting judge denied the motion, saying the dash-cam video was inconclusive as to the distance from which Vanderhart’s taillights were visible. The malfunctioning passenger-side taillight gave the officer “reasonable suspicion’’ to stop Vanderhart.

The case went to trial, and Vanderhart was found guilty. But 63rd District Court Judge Steven Servaas set aside the verdict, finding that Lobbezoo did not have reasonable suspicion to stop the car, noting that dash-cam video showed the taillights “were clearly visible from 500 feet.’’

Prosecutors appealed that decision to Kent County Circuit Court. Judge Donald A. Johnston in Jan. 2015 reinstated the jury’s verdict. Officer Lobbezoo’s belief that he could stop Vanderhart’s car based on the dim taillight “was reasonable,’’ the judge said.

Two of the three Appeals Court judges sided with Johnston, meaning the misdemeanor conviction will stand. The case could go to the Michigan Supreme Court, but there is no guarantee justices will hear it.

“It is reasonable to conclude that the Legislature . . . intended for taillights to be properly or fully lit when a car’s headlights are on,’’ Justice William B. Murphy wrote. A defective or malfunctioning taillight violates Michigan law “even though some light may still emanate from the taillight,’’ he wrote.

Appeals Court Judge David H. Sawyer, who wrote a four-page dissent, said the Legislature set the standard for taillights to be red and visible at 500 feet. “If the Legislature had wanted to prohibit taillights from having a different illumination level from each other, the Legislature could have easily said so,’’ Sawyer wrote in his dissent. “Officer Lobbezoo had no basis for making the traffic stop in the first place.’’

Now 26, Vanderhart is living out of state. Haehnel said he anticipates asking the Michigan Supreme Court to review the case.

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