Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Danger of Driving with Dangling Objects

Everyone is aware that driving while distracted is dangerous.  Everyone would also likely agree that driving with an obstructed view is dangerous.  However, almost everyone would be surprised to learn that under Connecticut law, you might just be driving while distracted or with an obstructed view on account of that graduation tassel, air freshener, or parking pass hanging from your rearview mirror.  In fact, Connecticut General Statute section14-99f (c) makes it an infraction to operate a motor vehicle in such instances and provides that: “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.”  (Emphasis added.)  While being pulled over and given a ticket because you had your graduation tassel hanging from your rearview mirror might seem a minor nuisance, consider the following.

In order for an officer to pull you over, he generally must have “reasonable and articulable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is occurring.”  See Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21–22 (1968).  Once pulled over for a traffic stop, the officer can inquire as to your license, registration and proof of insurance.  Moreover, the officer would be able to view you, the driver, any of the occupants in your car, as well as anything in your car in plain sight or emanating from your car, such as smells.  What does this mean?  It means, for instance, that if you were driving with expired registration or an expired license or, more seriously, driving while impaired or with other illegal substances visible or capable of being smelled, the officer would become aware of this and could ticket or arrest you for those violations or crimes.

This is exactly what happened in the recent Supreme Court case State v. Cyrus, 297 Conn. 829 (2010).  In that case, for several reasons, the officer pulled over a driver because he observed a cross hanging from the rearview mirror.  This gave the officer a reason to pull over the vehicle and ultimately discover the driver did not have a driver’s license and was driving while intoxicated.  Ultimately the evidence in that case was barred from being introduced because the officer failed to provide enough testimony to demonstrate that he reasonably believed that the hanging cross was distracting the driver or obstructing his view, rather than simply hanging there in violation of the law.  In light of Cyrus, police now know to be specific in describing their reasonable belief that the hanging object was distracting the driver or obstructing their view.

The lesson to be learned:  remove all hanging objects from your rearview mirror, lest a minor infraction yield to bigger violation.  I, for one, had to remove my favorite fuzzy dice.

Questions or comments on this post? Contact Jared Cantor.