Q: I was stopped for having expired plates on my car. The police ordered me to get out and asked for my driver’s license. It was from another state and had expired. They started to rifle through my car and I said “Sir, I do not give you permission to search my car” and the officer said “I’m going to impound it so your permission doesn’t matter.” Can he do that?
The short answer is “yes.” If your plates are expired, you can be charged with a crime. Likewise, if your license is also expired, you do not have the proper legal authority to drive the car. Since you couldn’t drive it, the police were within their right to impound it.
Once the police decide to impound your car, they have a right to do an “inventory search.” They do not need your permission and they do not have to obtain a warrant.
The police don’t always use the same terms. They may refer to impounding your car as “seizure,” “forfeiture,” “nuisance abatement” or some other term. This tactic is common in drunk driving, drug cases and prostitution cases. Whatever they call it, if they decide to keep the car, they are entitled to look through it without first getting a search warrant. If they locate contraband, you could get charged with additional criminal offenses based on what they find.
Not having up-to-date Michigan plates or tags on your car gives the police the right to pull you over. They have “probable cause.” This is because it is probable that someone (likely the owner or driver) failed to renew the plates. All they need to conduct a stop is a “suspicion” of criminal activity that they can describe or “articulate.” If they have more than a suspicion, like here, then they can not only stop you, they can also search and detain you.
If the police did not have probable cause, then they could not impound your car. The impoundment is completely separate from any criminal charges. The state calls it “nuisance abatement.” This is a “civil infraction.” It is not a crime, so you do not have a right to an appointed lawyer and other rights you would otherwise have. The idea is that your car is creating a nuisance because you are using it to engage in criminal acts. To abate the nuisance, they take the car even if the driver was not the owner. While you could rent a car and return to your nuisance activity, the law entertains the legal fiction that the car caused the nuisance and not the driver.
In order to get your car back, most places charge hundreds of dollars. This includes the towing company with the contract to tow your car. They can charge you for “storage” on a daily basis, so the longer you take to decide what to do or to get the money, the more it costs.
“JUDGE RUDY REPORTS” is a regular feature in Ferndale Friends. This “ask the lawyer” format column welcomes questions from readers. If you have a legal question or concern, send your question by email to email@example.com. Advice about specific cases or individuals cannot be provided but general legal questions and topics are welcome.
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