High Court Finds Officer Lacked Reasonable and Articulable Suspicion in DUI Traffic Stop Based Solely on Object Hanging From Rearview Mirror

In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut considered whether the lower courts erred in dismissing charges against the defendant because the arresting officer did not have a reasonable and articulable suspicion warranting a traffic stop.

In this case, a police officer received anonymous tips about an intoxicated driver, and the make and license plate number provided matched the defendant’s vehicle. The officer did not observe any erratic driving, though he noticed a chain and cross hanging from the rearview mirror. This wooden object was a total of one inch wide and ten inches long. Because of the officer’s “mistaken, albeit good faith, believe that [Connecticut General Statutes (CGS)] § 14-99f(c) makes it an infraction for a car to be driven with any object hanging from a rearview mirror,” he initiated a traffic stop on the basis of the wooden object alone.

The defendant was subsequently arrested and charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI), operation without a license, and operation with an obstructed view, in violation of CGS §§ 14-227a, 14-213, and 14-99f(c), respectively. The defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence, alleging the traffic stop was illegal because the officer had neither probable cause nor reasonable suspicion to initiate it. The trial court agreed and granted the motion, noting that the officer did not personally corroborate the unreliable tips. When the trial court later issued a Supplemental Finding of Fact, it wrote:

A reading of [§ 14-99f(c)] makes it clear that a violation of the statute is predicated upon an object obstructing the view of the driver or distracting the driver. [The officer’s] stop of the defendant was not based on a violation of the statute, but was based solely on the fact that there was something hanging from the defendant’s mirror.

The trial court dismissed all charges against the defendant, and the State appealed. The Appellate Court agreed with the trial court’s determination, additionally noting that “our statute does not proscribe all items hanging from a rearview mirror.” The State promptly appealed.

Investigatory stops under Terry v. Ohio are legal so long as the officer has a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot, a reasonable purpose for the stop, and the scope and character of the stop is reasonable in light of the purpose. The reasonable suspicion standard requires “some minimal level of objective justification for making the stop.” This requires factual support rather than hypothetical possibility.

In this case, the State was required to prove, under § 14-99f(c), that the officer had a reasonable and articulable suspicion “that the chain and/or cross that he had observed was, or had been, obstructing the defendant’s vision or distracting his attention.” In this regard, the state failed to meet its burden. The officer simply testified seeing the object – nothing more. As the court elaborated:

[The officer] 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. Indeed, the state presented no testimony that [the officer] considered the hanging chain to present an obstruction to the defendant’s view of the roadway.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court found that the wooden object simply was not objectively large enough to obstruct the defendant’s view. Therefore, the Supreme Court upheld the Appellate Court’s decision that the trial court properly dismissed the case.

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.