Absurd Traffic Stops in Virginia

police car bumper

Virginia police pull over thousands of motorists every year for having "dangling objects" or "windshield obstructions." Local and state officers use Virginia Code Section 46.2-1054 as reasonable suspicion for traffic stops. That law provides:

"It shall be unlawful for any person to drive a motor vehicle on a highway in the Commonwealth with any object or objects, other than a rearview mirror, sun visor, or other equipment of the motor vehicle approved by the superintendent, suspended from any part of the motor vehicle in such a manner as to obstruct the driver's clear view of the highway through the windshield,"

THE PROBLEM: Police officers and some judges took this law to absurd levels. Officers pulled people over for having anything hanging from the rearview mirror or sitting on the front dashboard. People were stopped for having toll transponders, air fresheners, and even, handicap parking permits! Many of us have to have these things in our cars to function daily. After making these suspicious traffic stops, officers that claimed to smell drugs or get consent to search were able to make DUI, drug, and other arrests. Officers knew that these drivers' vision was not obscured. The officers were using this law to arbitrarily stop drivers.

In 2012, a judge in Waverly, Virginia issued a decision that demonstrated the absurdity of these arrests. That judge heard a case where the driver had a 3-inch employee parking pass hanging from her mirror. The judge admitted that the pass did not obstruct the driver's view but upheld the arrest because the judge thought that the law allowed traffic stops if an officer sees any object hanging from the driver's rearview mirror.

THE SOLUTION: Thankfully, on August 5, 2014, a three-judge panel from the Virginia Court of Appeals applied a common-sense approach to reject this strict interpretation of the statute. The appellate court overturned the 2012 conviction. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court instructed officers and judges that Code Section 46.2-1054 does not criminalize all objects displayed in the front interior of a motor vehicle. That law only outlaws objects that obstruct the driver's clear view of the highway,

In a lengthy written opinion, the Court of Appeals rightfully observed that millions of drivers safely hang items from their car rearview mirrors. The old way judges interpreted the statute would allow police to detain just about anyone. The appeals court criticized officers that have been stopping people for conduct that "appears to be wholly innocent."

WHAT IS THE LAW NOW: The appeals court held that officers must have some evidence of actual obstruction of vision to conduct a traffic stop. The appeals court said that some items in rearview mirrors are decorative (fuzzy dice) sentimental (rosary beads) or utilitarian (parking permits). These items "are permitted to be attached to a vehicle unless they are of a size or positioned in such a way as to impair the ability of the driver to view the road." This interpretation doesn't allow drivers to put anything they want in their front windshields. It does however give good lawyers ammunition to attack suspicious traffic stops.

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