Trailer Plates Now In Litigation

February 4, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Michigan State Police had a list and they were checking it twice — but now the courts are going to decide who is naughty and nice.

Foreway Transportation CFO John Savage thought the state was out to get his drivers. Like many Michigan carriers, Foreway opted to purchase Maine license plates for its trailers when Michigan in 2003 increased its own plate fee from $39 to $300.

What Savage didn't expect was to earn a spot on the Michigan State Police's most wanted truckers list.

Through the course of fighting 34 tickets that Foreway received for allegedly illegal plates in 2004, Savage heard a common complaint from his drivers.

"The cops were saying, 'Hey, we're just doing our job. You guys are on a list and we're told to stop you,'" he said. "We kept hearing that our names were on this list."

On behalf of Foreway, Farmington Hills-based law firm Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith PC filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain any documents relating to the MSP's Out-of-State Trailer Plate Investigation.

Through this, the Business Journal obtained a three-page document titled "Current Maine Trailer Plate Violations."Dated June 11, 2004, the state had identified 41 companies confirmed to be plated illegally by Michigan's definition of the International Registration Plan.

"The list was just there for information," said Lieutenant David Ford of the MSP. "No instruction was given that if you see this truck going down the road that you should immediately stop it. It was just so that they had that information during the course of their normal patrol."

Ford explained that troopers were expected to investigate out-of-state plates on seemingly Michigan-based trucks, but determining where a company is legally based is not easily accomplished on the road.

"There was no expectation that every time that company pulled out on the road that one of our officers would pull them over," he said.

However, the list's subheading seems to tell a different story. It reads:

"Carrier confirmed to be in violation and roadside enforcement is encouraged every time they are encountered until they come into compliance."

Foster Swift partner Bob McFarland said that the MPS obtained from the state of Maine a list of Michigan carriers with Maine plates listing their business address as a resident agent.

"That was their probable cause," McFarland said. "Our determination is that is irrelevant."

The International Registration Plan is an interstate compact among the 48 contiguous states, District of Columbia and most of Canada that provides for the manner in which tractors and trailers are to be plated and fees apportioned.

McFarland said Section 404 of the plan states, "Trailers are to be provided full and free reciprocity as long as they are properly plated in a member jurisdiction and are pulled in combination with a tractor bearing an apportioned IRP plate."

The state of Maine does not require carriers to be located there to purchase trailer plates, requiring only that a resident agent is in place. Thus, it is legal for a Michigan carrier to plate its trailers with plates from another state, provided it follows the law of the plating state.

On that basis, Foreway has had tickets dismissed by lower courts across Michigan 

Kent County Circuit Court Judge Donald Johnston agreed as well, granting a moratorium against issuing any new tickets until the issues are decided in a pair of court cases: Van's Delivery Service Inc. vs. Michael Cox, in KentCounty, and Behnke vs. State of Michigan, in InghamCounty

Many of the dozen plaintiffs in the KentCounty suit are present on the Business Journal's copy of the MPS list. Among them are Gordon Foods, Kuperus Trucking, Foreway, Pace Trailer Sales and Trailer X-press.

Some, like Van Eerden Trucking and the lead plaintiff, Van's Delivery, are not.

"Quite frankly, it was a business decision," said Van's COO John Nieuwenhuis.

Many carriers have for years used five-year Maine plates rather than Michigan's one-year plates for logistics purposes. Van's didn't face the inherent problems of reining in a far-flung fleet to change plates, so it had mostly used Michigan trailer plates.

Faced with changing over to the $300 non-transferable, lifetime plate — a cost of $45,000 — Nieuwenhuis switched to the Maine trailer plates. Savage said Michigan plates would have cost Foreway $90,000.

Michigan allowed no concessions for trailers near the end of their lifecycle. Carriers would pay $300 to plate a trailer that would be retired that same year.

"Had Michigan come up with a five-year plate, we'd have been glad to pay it," Nieuwenhuis said. "We weren't asked for input. Would we have switched plates if not for this (price increase)? No."

Statements from the Michigan Secretary of State say that the move was aimed at simplifying trailer registration. Calls for further comment directed to the Department of the Attorney General were not returned by press time.

If the pending decision and the number of dismissed tickets are any indication, the state's coffers may soon take a significant hit, as the path may clear for all carriers to seek the out-of-state option.

"It really comes down to budget issues," Savage said. "The state is desperate for revenue and they started down a road that they couldn't go back."

"The state chased us away," added Nieuwenhuis.

Most of the carriers mentioned still carry Michigan plates on their tractors.

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