It’s Against the Law in Some U.S. States to Drive with an Air Freshener Hanging from Your Rearview Mirror
There are places in America where hanging an object from your rearview mirror can be considered an obstruction of your view while driving.
Daunte Wright’s mother told reporters that her son had called to tell her he had been pulled over for an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror before he was shot and killed in Minnesota last week during a traffic stop.
Wright had tried to leave the scene after police realized he had an outstanding warrant and attempted to arrest him. Officer Kim Porter shot Wright as he made his way to his car. She has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, and the police chief, who has since resigned, has said he believes Porter meant to use her taser to stop Wright, not her gun.
Police say Wright was pulled over for having expired car registration tags and that they didn’t notice the air freshener until after they had stopped him. But whatever the reason for the stop, Minnesota is a state in the U.S. where police can stop a driver for having an object dangling from their rearview mirror.
Beyond Minnesota, this law is also present in at least five other states: California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Texas. The laws don’t typically mention air fresheners specifically. Drivers can be pulled over for anything hanging from the rearview mirror including, fuzzy dice, rosary beads, graduation tassels, and even face masks.
Any object hanging from your rearview mirror in one of these locations gives officers reasonable cause to stop a car. And once officers pull someone over, they usually investigate further, as in Wright’s case, when they found an existing warrant for his arrest.
Virginia is one state that has recently changed its law. Although it is illegal to hang an object in a way that obstructs vision, the police can’t pull someone over for that offense unless they have another primary reason.
What is a pretextual traffic stop?
The ACLU of Minnesota is concerned that when police officers stopped Wright, they were committing what is known as a pretextual stop. A pretextual traffic stop is when police use low-level misdemeanors, like air fresheners, tinted windows, or expired tags, as an excuse to pull someone over. These stops tend to target Black people, and studies have shown that Black drivers are more likely to be pulled over than white drivers.
What do the police say about pretextual stops?
When police stop people for minor violations, they have the opportunity to discover evidence of other crimes or outstanding warrants. For example, it was a routine traffic stop for missing registration tags that caught Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police said that police did not object to Virginia’s changing their traffic law. However, Schrad also said, “The more you limit the ability of a law enforcement officer to intervene in something that would be a violation of the law, you limit their ability to discover other criminal activity.”
What do the courts say?
In 2018, in Chicago, two Black men were pulled over for having air fresheners hanging from their rearview mirror. The police found weapons in the car, and they were arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
The men argued in court that the evidence should be suppressed because the police did not have probable cause to stop them. However, the court found that the stop was legal and the evidence found during the stop was allowed to be used in court. They ruled the air freshener may have blocked the view of the driver in violation of the traffic code.
Will the laws change?
They might. The laws in Virginia had already changed. And last month, the Minnesota House passed a package that included many police accountability measures such as what is no longer eligible for a traffic stop. Police would no longer be able to stop motorists with expired license plates and hanging items from a rearview mirror if the bill becomes law.
An original version of this story was previously published on Medium.