Hanging items from the rear-view mirror is, for many, an act of personal expression, like getting a tattoo or dressing in a certain style. But strictly speaking, is it legal to do so? The law is fuzzy, and changes from area to area. But you can get pulled over for it on rare occasions.
Self-expression or obstruction?
What is hanging from your rear-view mirror? Some people just put an air freshener there and call it good. Others hang everything from a baby’s shoe to a bridal garter to handcuffs to everything in between. Next month you can expect to see many 2012 graduation tassels in various dual-shades, dangling behind windshields.
But most areas do have ordinances against items that obstruct a driver’s view of the road. These statutes are taken more seriously in some areas than in others, but are generally ignored except in the case of egregious violations.
However, these laws are often vaguely defined, leaving much discretion up to the law enforcement officer. As such, the statutes have drawn controversy for their potential use by law enforcement as an excuse to pull over drivers without other probably cause.
Supreme Court ruling
The United States Supreme Court ruled in August, 2010 four-to-three that law enforcement needs to be certain that a dangling knickknack is truly an impediment to a driver’s vision before making a traffic stop for it. The ruling upheld a previous Appellate Court decision to dismiss 2006 charges against Gregory Cyrus, a motorist who was also cited for drunk driving, driving without a license and operating a vehicle with an obstructed view. The so-called obstruction was a small cross on a beaded chain. Because it was cited as the reason for pulling Cyrus over, all other charges were also dismissed.
The violation for which Cyrus was stopped read:
“No article, device, sticker or ornament shall be attached or affixed to or hung on or in any motor vehicle in such a manner or location as to interfere with the operator’s unobstructed view of the highway or to distract the attention of the operator.”
Meanwhile, in Michigan
A similar civil statute had previously been struck down in Michigan by Oakland County Circuit Judge Daniel O’Brien, on grounds of its being too vague. However, last week the law was upheld my a Michigan Appellate Court.
The three-judge panel concluded:
“The statute uses commonly understood, definite terms that place ordinary citizens on notice of prohibited conduct.”
The statue was overturned in a case involving a man who was pulled over for an air freshener hanging from his mirror. However, as the man parked he tossed a syringe out of the window, leading the arresting officer to find heroin on his possession.
‘Legitimate reason to pull you over?’
Chief Assistant Prosecutor Paul Walton defended the decision:
“It is a valid statute, enacted with safety in mind, and you can be pulled over for it. I think most officers would exercise discretion and just inform you to remove the object … but it is a civil infraction and a legitimate reason to pull you over.”
What is your opinion on that, fellow motorist? For me, I plan to take the air freshener off of my car mirror as soon as I leave the office today. Not that I have anything to hide, but I don’t want to give anyone an excuse to pull me over, either.