By Alaine Griffin
The Hartford Courant
August 10, 2010
What might seem like harmless tchotchkes to motorists — graduation tassels hanging from rearview mirrors, stuffed animals under rear windows and bobblehead dolls on the dashboard — could actually be reasons for police to pull someone over.
But a 4-3 state Supreme Court decision Monday says police better be clear about how the trinkets are distracting or obstructive to the driver. Police need more than the hypothetical possibility that a driver would be distracted or could not see because of the item dangling from the mirror.
Monday's divided decision upheld a lower court ruling dismissing the charges against Gregory Cyrus, who was charged by state police in March 2006 with drunken driving, driving without a license, and operating a vehicle with an obstructed view. At the time of the stop, the ruling says, "a small wood-like cross attached to a beaded chain" was hanging from Cyrus' rear-view mirror. The ruling said the chain was 8 to 10 inches long, and the cross 1 inch wide by 13/4 inches long.
The trooper who made the stop said he pulled Cyrus over because he believed the cross and chain violated state law that prohibits the hanging of obstructive objects from rearview mirrors.
The law states 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."
Cyrus pleaded not guilty to the charges and filed a motion in Superior Court to suppress evidence, claiming that the stop was unconstitutional because police lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to make the arrest.
In arguing against the motion, prosecutors said police received two anonymous tips about an alleged drunken driver in a motor vehicle that matched Cyrus' vehicle. The trooper also testified about seeing the chain hanging from the mirror.
The trial court granted Cyrus' motion to suppress, saying that despite the anonymous tips, the driver should not have been stopped because the trooper never said in his testimony what was improper about Cyrus' operation of the vehicle.
After the state Appellate Court sided with the lower court, the case went to the state's highest court.
In Monday's decision, the justices wrote that the trooper's testimony about the hanging cross never showed that it obstructed Cyrus' view or that such a belief would have been reason enough for a traffic stop.
The justices wrote that the item the trooper said he saw hanging from the mirror "was not large enough by any objective measure in and of itself to prove that it would obstruct a driver's view. To the contrary, the object was relatively small and dwarfed by the size of the motor vehicle's windshield." The decision said there was no evidence that the chain was swinging back and forth in front of Cyrus' field of vision so that it could distract him.
The trooper, according to the decision, "did not say that he had seen the defendant peering around the object, glancing toward the object and away from the road ahead of him or driving his car in such a manner to suggest that his view was obstructed or that he was distracted."
The dissenting justices, however, wrote that the trooper "had a reasonable and articulable suspicion" that the driver was violating the law prohibiting a driver from having objects that could obstruct a motorist's view and legally had a right to pull Cyrus over.
"Our legislature intended that this state would have a broad prohibition against objects in a motor vehicle that distract or obstruct the driver's view in any way, thus giving law enforcement authorities wide authority to investigate the impact of such objects on the driver," they wrote.
Law enforcement officials said Monday's decision will likely be discussed at future police department roll calls and meetings.
"We're going to have to let officers know they will have to describe the objects they see so they can justify why they make a stop," said West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci, a past president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. "It's not going to be enough to just say that something is hanging from a rearview mirror."
Strillacci said officers' reports of the obstruction will have to be detailed, noting an object's dimensions, its movement and potential reflectivity. The extra effort is worth it in the long run, Strillacci said, since many routine traffic stops often yield evidence of more serious crimes.
"Good police officers will take small violations and find something bigger. Stolen cars, drug violations often start out with a minor traffic stop," he said.
Return to the main news area.