DUI Defendant Contests Traffic Stop, Claiming Lack of Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion

In a recent criminal law matter, a Superior Court of Connecticut considered a defendant’s motion to suppress evidence arguing that the arresting officer did not have grounds to initiate a traffic stop based solely on a cluster of air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror.

This case arose from an incident that occurred just after midnight on January 24, 2007. A police officer noticed “a large cluster of air freshener ornaments hanging from the rearview mirror” of the defendant’s car, a potential violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 14-99f(c), a State traffic law. At this time, the defendant was not showing any sign of erratic driving. The officer initiated a traffic stop and immediately noticed “a very strong odor of alcohol” as well as the defendant’s bloodshot, glassy eyes. The defendant failed three sobriety tests and was arrested; a subsequent search of the vehicle revealed an open bottle of Yukon Jack liquor that was partially empty.

The defendant was charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) in violation of CGS § 14-227a. He filed a motion to suppress evidence, claiming that the officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion to stop his vehicle. The defendant argued that the officer had to believe that the air fresheners actually obstructed his vision through the windshield, but the State stated that “anything hung from the rearview mirror necessarily obstructs and/or distracts.” The defendant countered that regardless of what someone hangs, it would be a per se violation allowing officers to pull people over on a whim, thus negating Fourth Amendment protections.

Officers may perform investigatory stops if they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. In Connecticut, officers have authority to stop a motor vehicle for a mere traffic infraction, such as under CGS § 14-99f(c). Pursuant to this statute, “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.” Citing a Virginia appellate decision, the Superior Court acknowledged that many motorists drive with objects hanging from their rearview mirrors: “The variety and the frequency with which objects are suspended from rearview mirrors may be a reflection of the egocentricity of the driver and of the public’s general ignorance of the statutory prohibition, but that does not excuse the conduct.” (Emphasis added)

In this case, the Superior Court noted that CGS § 14-99f(c) requires the driver’s view remain unobstructed, not that the view actually be obstructed. Therefore, in Connecticut, if a hung object either “1) interfere[s] with the unobstructed view of the operator, or 2) distract[s] the operator,” he or she will have violated the statute. Because the officer in this case could reasonably conclude that the cluster of air fresheners obstructed the defendant’s “peripheral vision in the right-hand direction,” he had a reasonable and articulable suspicion to initiate a brief traffic stop to confirm or dispel his suspicion of a traffic violation. After quickly addressing and rejecting additional claims, the Court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.