Posts tagged with "investigatory stops"

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.

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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.

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