People v. Brooks, Docket No. 58734

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Citation405 Mich. 225,274 N.W.2d 430
Docket NumberNo. 16,Docket No. 58734,16
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Leland Harold BROOKS, Defendant-Appellee. Calendar
Decision Date19 January 1979

L. Brooks Patterson, Pros. Atty., Oakland County, Robert C. Williams, Chief Appellate Counsel Asst. Pros. Atty. by James L. McCarthy, Asst. Appellate Counsel, Asst. Pros. Atty., Pontiac, for plaintiff-appellant.

Scupholm, Underwood & Porritt by Otis M. Underwood, Jr., Oxford, for defendant-appellee.

COLEMAN, Chief Justice.

Defendant was convicted of receiving stolen property valued at more than $100. In a 1 to 1 to 1 decision, the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that defendant was arrested without probable cause and that he and his automobile had been improperly searched.

We reverse and reinstate the conviction.

I

While investigating a stolen car ring on March 14, 1972, officers of the Michigan State Police Intelligence Section, Organized Crime Unit, had staked out the Telegraph House Motel parking lot. They were watching a 1972 Continental Mark IV which had been identified as stolen and which was known to have an altered vehicle identification number (VIN).

Two other automobiles, a 1969 Cadillac (Ohio license plates) driven by defendant and a Ford Maverick, entered the motel parking lot separately. The persons in the cars went into the motel separately, but the drivers of the stolen Mark IV, the Cadillac and the Maverick left the motel together. They then drove the vehicles on the same route followed by the state police officers and officers of the Southfield police.

All three cars under surveillance pulled into the same gas station on Nine Mile Road and stopped.

At the gas station, Southfield Officer McKee asked defendant for his license and the Cadillac's registration. The defendant gave Officer McKee a license and a purported registration for the car. 1 McKee handed the documents to his partner, Southfield Officer George. Officer George had been specially trained in the identification of altered VINs. He compared the VIN on the registration proffered by the defendant with the VIN stamped on a plate affixed to the dashboard of the Cadillac in plain view. The VINs matched each other but the VIN on the dashboard appeared to have been altered. At trial, Officer George testified:

"Q. Okay. Now, Officer, when you looked at that VIN plate out there at the scene, at the gas station, did you observe anything about it?

"A. Yes, sir, I observed that two numbers appeared to be out of line with the rest.

"Q. And, which two numbers, please?

"A. The first two numbers are 2 and 4 were the numbers.

"Q. Okay. And, you did observe that with the naked eye?

"A. Yes, sir, I did.

"Q. Now, Officer, if you recall, did you confiscate the VIN plate or someone else?

"A. Someone else did, sir.

"Q. Now, Officer, what transpired next after the VIN plate was checked?

"A. At that time I informed Mr. Brooks that we would further we would like to further check as far as ownership of the vehicle, and asked him if he would mind coming into the station while this check took place.

"Q. And, did Mr. Brooks reply?

"A. He said he didn't mind, he would come in."

The license given by the defendant to the officers was in the defendant's name, but the purported registration bore the name of a Mr. Willie J. Benman of Ohio. 2

In the Court of Appeals, Judge T. M. Burns wrote an opinion with Judge Holbrook, Jr. concurring only in the result. Judge Brennan dissented. Judge Burns said there could "be little dispute that defendant was under arrest when he accompanied the police officer to the Southfield police station".

We do not know the state of defendant's mind as to whether he thought he could refuse the "invitation", but we will give defendant the benefit of his argument that he was in fact arrested at the gas station.

Judge Burns concluded there was an arrest and that it was made without reasonable or probable cause. 3

Judge Brennan's dissent reviewed the circumstances and found them "highly suspicious":

"Defendant was brought under surveillance and was stopped by police because he was driving a vehicle clearly travelling in tandem with two other automobiles, one of which was known to be stolen. The stolen automobile, a Continental Mark IV, was known to have a false VIN plate. All of the vehicles had been originally observed together at the Telegraph House Motel before leaving the motel in a group. In addition, they all travelled in identical route for several blocks to the gas station. Certainly the police officers acted reasonably in stopping and investigating defendant when the vehicles pulled up at the gas station."

He said Officer George's discovery that the Cadillac's VIN plate was altered provided reasonable cause to arrest, a facet of the whole not addressed by Judge Burns.

M.C.L. § 764.15(a); M.S.A. § 28.874(a) allows a policeman "without a warrant, (to) arrest a person * * * for the commission of any * * * Misdemeanor committed in his presence ". (Emphasis added.)

It is a misdemeanor to "Misrepresent the identity of a motor vehicle * * * by removing or defacing the manufacturer's serial number (the VIN) * * * or by replacing any part of such motor vehicle * * * bearing the serial number * * * with a new part, upon which the proper serial number * * * has not been stamped". (Emphasis added.) M.C.L. § 750.415; M.S.A. § 28.647. 4 Possession of a motor vehicle with an "altered" VIN is, under this statute, "prima facie evidence of violation" of this law.

Under the circumstances of this case, the officers were justified in concluding that the defendant was "misrepresent(ing) the identity of a motor vehicle" in their presence. They had observed the defendant driving a late model Cadillac (a frequent target of stolen car rings) and leaving a motel and traveling together with a late model Lincoln Continental Mark IV (also a frequent target of stolen car rings). They knew also that the VIN on the Continental had been altered and that the car had been stolen. When they asked the defendant for the Cadillac's registration, he handed them a registration bearing the name of Mr. Willie J. Benman of Ohio. They observed that the VIN on the Cadillac's dashboard also had been altered and that the VIN on the purported registration proffered by the defendant matched and altered VIN on the dashboard. These observations, taken together, were more than sufficient to justify a conclusion that the defendant was "misrepresent(ing) the identity of a motor vehicle" in their presence.

It is true that the officers did not observe the defendant physically altering the VIN on the Cadillac's dashboard, although they did observe the misrepresentation and herein lies the critical point of difference between the analyses in our opinions.

We cannot attribute to the Legislature the intention that the police must witness both the physical act of altering and the act of misrepresenting in order to arrest a defendant without a warrant for commission of this crime.

At the outset, we consider the meaning of "misrepresentation" and observe that it cannot be accomplished by viewing one's own work as it is being done (I. e., in this case, altering the VIN). Black's Law Dictionary provides this definition of misrepresentation:

"Any manifestation by words or other conduct By one person to another that, under the circumstances, amounts to an assertion not in accordance with the facts." (Emphasis added.)

To interpret the statute as requiring that the police must witness both the altering and the misrepresentation would for all practical purposes make the statute unenforceable. Persons engaged in the illicit business of stealing and disposing of cars for cash do not ply their trade in public. VIN numbers are not likely to be altered in broad daylight and in plain view. They are doctored in the secrecy of garages and "chop shops" throughout the state. Therefore, the physical act of alteration is rarely observed. Furthermore, stolen automobiles are extremely mobile and fungible. Within hours they can be driven to another state or country or they can be dissected into their component parts, irrevocably beyond identification or recovery.

We believe the Legislature was aware of these facts when it made possession of a motor vehicle with an "altered" VIN "prima facie" evidence of commission of this crime. 5 When, as here, a police officer observes the accomplished fact of physical alteration together with an act of misrepresentation, it would make little sense to send the possessor freely on his or her way. By the time a warrant could be obtained, the culprit and the car would be long gone.

For these reasons, we hold that the arrest of the defendant at the gas station was valid. Therefore, the Cadillac, which was the primary evidence of the crime, was properly seized incident to the arrest.

II

After defendant's Cadillac was driven to the Southfield Police Station, it was inspected by Robert Campbell of the National Automobile Theft Bureau. He agreed it "was obvious from looking at (the VIN plate that) it was not an original factory plate or the one inserted by the factory". Among the factors noted was that "the numbers are not straight as when they are automatically embossed".

After checking the plate, Mr. Campbell crawled under the car to check the identification numbers stamped on the outside of the engine and frame. They did not match the numbers on the VIN plate. A computer check of the true numbers showed that the Cadillac was stolen. (See fn. 2).

Judge Burns said that Mr. Campbell had searched the car. He found no justification for the search and concluded that "evidence of the correct vehicle identification numbers, that the VIN plate had been tampered with and the resulting evidence that the car had been stolen should have been suppressed".

He assumed there had been a search. Judge Brennan said "the search...

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