A Michigan State Trooper incorrectly told a bicyclist he had to ride single file on the road’s shoulder. With help from a member of the Bike Law network and the trooper's own dash cam video the cyclist had the ticket dismissed.
When a Michigan bicyclist got a ticket in 2015 for impeding traffic, he could have simply paid a $200 fine. But he believed the trooper who pulled him over was wrong about the law and hostile to bicyclists’ rights to use Michigan roads. So, he decided to fight.
It took two trips to the courthouse, but the bicyclist prevailed with help from Michigan attorney, Bryan Waldman, a member of the Bike Law network. The trooper’s own dash cam video proved crucial to the cyclist’s defense.
Confrontation on Sunday Morning Bike Ride
On Sunday, June 7, 2015, Tim Panagis decided he would do the same thing he had done almost every Sunday for the last several years – ride his bike on the rural roads of Washtenaw and Livingston Counties near his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tim was joined by his girlfriend (now fiancé) Kathleen Ropella, Danny Soltan and Tessa Perez. All were competitive cyclists with years of experience.
Like most bicyclists, the group had the occasional run-in with angry motorists. This day, they would have yet another encounter with an angry motorist, but this one would be different. This angry driver was a Michigan State Trooper.
The trooper was a 22-year road patrol veteran for the State of Michigan. By all accounts, he was respected by judges and prosecutors. On this day, just before noon, the trooper was traveling westbound on 8 Mile Road in Green Oak Township when he spotted the four cyclists traveling ahead of him, in the same direction.
As he approached the cyclists, the trooper noticed they were riding two abreast. He grabbed the microphone to the patrol car PA system and instructed the cyclists to ride single file. The riders complied, all riding either on or just right of the fog line.
Tim was in the third position of the single file pace line. He looked back and saw the patrol car right on the group’s tail. Using his left hand, Tim waved the officer through. In Tim’s mind, he was simply doing something cyclists do all the time – communicating through the use of hand signals.
But the trooper wasn’t a cyclist. He was a motorist, and motorists no longer use hand signals to communicate with each other. More commonly they use hand gestures to express negative opinions. As a result, the trooper was of the opinion that Tim’s waving hand was anything but a friendly gesture to assist the trooper in making a safe pass.
The trooper pulled along beside the cyclists and ordered Tim to pull over. Tim’s riding partners began to coast, but Tim continued to pedal to get to the front of the group and distance himself from the other cyclists.
Once out of his vehicle, trooper approached Tim. The trooper said:
“It was not intended for anybody to take any kind of offense to it. I was merely pointing out what the law is so that you would know what it is. And all you did was pass somebody right after I told you single file and then you waved me on. Now, that to me gives me the impression that you want to be a smart aleck!”
Tim tried to explain that the trooper had “completely misread” his intentions. However, the trooper was clearly upset and would not hear what Tim had to say. The trooper continued:
“Do you know what the law says? … (that cyclists must ride) to the right edge of the roadway, not the white line, the right edge of the roadway.”
Tim asked if he would be receiving a ticket and the trooper responded “maybe.” “For what?” Tim asked. The trooper responded, “For interfering with traffic. It’s called impeding. You were in the roadway. You were to the left of the white line.”
Tim was issued a citation for a violation of Michigan Compiled Law 257.676b – Impeding Traffic. The officer’s notations on the statute read:
“BICYCLIST RIDING IN ROADWAY
WARNED TO RIDE SINGLE FILE
PASSED OTHER LEFT OF THE FOG LINE.”
The ticket amount was $200.
Tim, who is an engineer at Ford, could have simply paid the ticket rather than fight it. However, he and Bryan decided it was worth standing up to a clear misapplication of Michigan’s biking laws. Tim had one just one condition – if there was any risk that his friends would be charged, he would drop his defense and pay the fine.
Formal Hearing at District Court
Bryan, Tim, John Waterman (a League Cycling Instructor) and Danny Soltan attended the District Court hearing. As the group sat in the courtroom, just minutes before the hearing, the prosecutor made it clear others could be charged.
The prosecutor stated: “If any of you testify, you will also be charged with a civil infraction and we will be seeking additional charges based on what we saw in the video.”
It was agreed not to ask Danny to testify and to move forward without his testimony about the incident.
The judge conducted a long and thorough hearing, taking testimony from Tim, the officer and John Waterman. At the conclusion of that testimony, the District Court judge ruled against Tim, finding him guilty for obstructing traffic.
The judge said Tim obstructed the police vehicle by moving left of the white line when passing the other cyclists. The judge stated:
“I don’t deny that the defendant respondent is a very good bicyclist, you can tell that he was a good bicyclist just by watching the videotape, and I don’t deny that his expert knows what he’s talking about, too, but going to waving him on and then going into the left — that was not a safe way and that did impede the officer’s lane of travel.”
Here’s what Bryan has to say about that ruling:
“In my opinion, this should have been a clear winner for Tim. The video showed him riding properly in textbook fashion. There were no cars in the video in front of or behind the patrol car, so there were no cars being obstructed. Respectfully, we had an officer who we believed didn’t understand the law.
“Hearing the judge and prosecutor refer to the roadway as the “officer’s lane” also made it clear they didn’t get it. It’s not the officer’s lane, it’s a lane for bikes, cars, trucks, all traffic and that is why we all need to follow the laws.“
What Michigan Traffic Law States
At this point, let me explain the Michigan laws that are at issue, and why it’s clear the court should have ruled in Tim’s favor.
- Under Michigan law, cyclists are legally allowed to ride two abreast.
- The Michigan Supreme Court has defined the roadway as the “improved portion of the highway designed for vehicular travel.” In a 2006 opinion, Grimes v. Michigan Department of Transportation, the court specifically excluded the shoulder from the definition of roadway.
District Court Ruling Appealed
Following the unfavorable ruling from the District Court, Bryan teamed up with his firm’s appellate attorney, Joel Finnell, to take the case to the next level. In Michigan, that is the Circuit Court.
In preparing the appeal, Joel looked at a Michigan Department of Transportation video on how to ride a bike and safely pass a bike while driving a car. He was convinced that Tim had done everything right. Joel was also convinced that officer drove too closely to the cyclists from behind, and he didn’t move far enough to the left. In Joel’s opinion, if Tim was too close to the car, the fault rested with the trooper, not Tim.
As Tim’s attorneys moved forward with the appeal, they broke the video down into still frames. That shifted the focus away from Tim moving to left (even if it was only 6 to 12 inches) to the officer creating the situation that he labeled as impeding traffic. Here are three of those images. The first shows the cyclists riding two abreast before the officer orders them to ride single file. Next, Tim motions to the trooper for a safe pass. In the third frame, Tim begins to pass one of the riding group who appears to be slowing. Tim is visible at the right edge of the picture.
Circuit Court Hearing
The Circuit Court hearing was held before Judge David J. Reader. Judge Reader began the hearing by asking, “Who appeals a civil infraction?” He commented that the brief written by Joel was a “$10,000 brief for a $200 citation.”
After a lengthy and thought provoking hearing, Judge Reader first ruled that Tim and the other cyclists had complied with the law by riding as far to the right edge of the roadway as was practicable. He noted the cyclists were single file and that Tim had the right to pass the other cyclists. Further, he noted that cyclists are allowed to ride two abreast and that they don’t need to be at the right edge of the roadway when passing another cyclist.
Judge Reader also noted that under Grimes, the 2006 Supreme Court opinion, the roadway is defined as the lane of travel intended for vehicular travel, which does not include the shoulder. As a result, the law did not require Tim to be to the right of the fog (white) line.
The judge then turned his focus to the patrol car, noting that the trooper had a duty to pass at a safe distance, but failed to do so, and never moved left or made any effort to increase the distance between the car and the bicycle.
Ultimately, Judge Reader overruled the District Court. He ordered that the case be remanded to the District Court with instructions that the case be dismissed, with prejudice.
Under Michigan law, the prevailing party is entitled to tax (be reimbursed) certain costs. That means the County will likely be obligated to pay or reimburse expenses of approximately $500.
Congratulations Tim, Joel, and Bryan. And, thank you Tim for having the courage and wherewithal to stand up for the rights of all Michigan bicyclists.