Phil Colbert was on his way to meet his father for lunch before his shift at an Arizona car dealership in 2019 when he saw the flashing lights of a sheriff’s patrol car in his mirror. He made sure his hands were on the steering wheel, planted at 10 and 2 as his parents had taught him, and asked why he was arrested.
“You can’t hang anything from your rearview mirror,” the La Paz county MP told him, wearing a Blue Lives Matter bracelet.
The agent was referring to the tree-shaped air freshener hanging near the windshield, but quickly moved on to other questions: Do you have any marijuana? Do you smoke marijuana? When was the last time you smoked marijuana? Do you have cocaine? To Mr. Colbert, who is black, the air freshener seemed nothing more than a pretext for the equivalent of driving a stop-and-frisk.
“At that point, I was like, ‘This guy comes up with anything. He just found anything to talk to or disturb me, ”said Mr Colbert, 23, who recorded the traffic stop on his cell phone and was eventually released with a warning.
Air fresheners that hang from mirrors have been a ubiquitous accessory in cars for decades. But they can be treated as illegal in a majority of states, which have laws prohibiting objects near the windshield that can obstruct motorists’ view. They are part of a string of low-level offenses, such as tinted windows or broken taillights, which civil rights activists complain about have become common pretexts for traffic stops that too often target people of color. selectively.
The encounter this week in Minnesota that led a police officer to fatally shoot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old black man, began when officers issued a traffic stop and raised the issue of an air freshener suspended, according to Mr Wright’s mother, who spoke to her son on the phone moments before he was shot.
Pete Orput, the Washington County attorney, said officers noticed an expired registration tab on Mr. Wright’s license plate and decided to park his car. One of the officers later noticed the air freshener hanging from the mirror, which was a violation of the law, Mr. Orput said.
Racial prejudice in roadside checks has been a central concern of researchers and civil rights activists for years. As part of Stanford University’s Open Policing Project, researchers analyzing more than 100 million traffic stops nationwide have found persistent racial disparities, with black and Hispanic drivers more likely to be stopped and more likely to be searched. Collectively, officers found contraband at a lower rate among these searches than in searches of white drivers.
Traffic checks can also intensify, as in the case of Mr Wright, who was shot and killed by a police officer after getting back into his car as police attempted to arrest him on an unrelated warrant. The officer, Kimberly A. Potter, who had shouted that she was about to use her Taser, resigned and was charged with second degree manslaughter.
Paige Fernandez, an advocate for police policy at the American Civil Liberties Union, said low-level infractions such as expired registrations and air fresheners on mirrors should not be dealt with by armed police.
“The danger of police roadside checks far outweighs any benefit of involving them,” said Fernandez.
Mayor Mike Elliott of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, where Mr. Wright was killed, said police should not arrest people because of an expired recording during the coronavirus pandemic.
Bans on items hanging from mirrors can extend to fuzzy dice, graduation pom poms and rosaries. Last year, amid the pandemic, authorities in Maine warned of hanging masks.
A woman who answered the phone for the maker of one of the most common hanging air fresheners, Little Trees, said the company would have no comment on the legal debate. The company’s website shows the scented paper trees hanging from a rear-view mirror.
States have long questioned how best to deal with the obstruction problem. After court data showed more than 1,400 citations in a year for people driving on Maryland freeways with windshields obstructed by objects or materials, the state changed its law in 2017. The violation didn’t. is no longer a primary offense, which would justify stopping traffic, but a secondary offense, which can only be invoked after a motorist has stopped for something more serious, such as speeding.
Virginia has followed suit as part of a larger package of reforms limiting when police can conduct traffic stops.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the group had supported some of the changes, including banning people from being arrested for recently expired records. When lawmakers changed the law to require that a driver’s view be “substantially” obstructed by objects to be considered a violation, law enforcement did not object.
Making windshield obstructions a secondary offense could allow some motorists to continue driving even with a significant obstruction that limits their view. Ms Schrad said this had raised concerns that the roads could become less safe.
Ms Schrad said that when officers arrest people for minor violations, they may also uncover other issues, including outstanding misdemeanor warrants or evidence of other crimes. “The more you limit a law enforcement officer’s ability to intervene in something that would violate the law, the more you limit his ability to uncover other criminal activity,” she said.
In places where air fresheners have been treated as a primary offense, traffic stops have faced legal challenges with varying results.
One evening in April 2008, Benjamin Garcia-Garcia was driving a van along Interstate 55 near Springfield, Ill., When a state soldier who had been parked in the median moved on the highway and stopped it. According to court records, the soldier claimed he saw the pink air freshener hanging from Mr Garcia-Garcia’s mirror and believed it was breaking state law prohibiting items that could obstruct the driver’s view.
The soldier later admitted that he did not stop all cars with an air freshener and did not observe any other traffic violations. The soldier issued a written warning, but in the process he also learned that Mr. Garcia-Garcia and his passengers were in the country illegally. This sparked a response from Immigration and Customs Enforcement which led to Mr. Garcia-Garcia facing a federal charge of illegally crossing the border. He was imprisoned and deported.
Mr Garcia-Garcia disputed the rationale for the stop in his criminal case, arguing that the soldier could not have seen the air freshener from a vehicle traveling at freeway speed and that he would not have could conclude that it was a material obstruction. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected the argument.
“The object the soldier observed was small, but given its size and position relative to the driver, a reasonable officer could conclude that it was in violation of Illinois law prohibiting physical obstructions,” the judges wrote. .
In a more recent case, on the south side of Chicago, a police officer said he saw an air freshener in a vehicle and started following the car, then stopped it for violating a city code provision prohibiting obstructions. of the windshield. During the traffic stop, officers found guns in the vehicle and arrested the two men inside, who were black. The men challenged the legality of the traffic stop, but the same appeals court again ruled that the stop was constitutional.
But in Connecticut in 2010, after a traffic stop in which a driver had a chain and a cross hanging from his rearview mirror, the state Supreme Court sided with the driver, determining that the object was relatively small and that the soldier who triggered the stop did not express concern that the object was blocking the driver’s view.
The case of Mr. Colbert, the motorist stopped in Arizona in an unincorporated area between Parker and Lake Havasu, became public after posting a video of the traffic stopping online. He later obtained a lawyer, Benjamin Taylor, who said he believed the MP was engaging in racial profiling.
“Even if you are polite, calm, even if you have a university education, the bottom line is that at the end of the day you are still black,” Taylor said. “That’s all the cop sees and stereotypes.”
The Sheriff’s Department later determined that the Deputy Minister had no legitimate basis for his repeated questioning of Mr. Colbert. The deputy, Eli Max, was fired in part for his handling of the shutdown. Mr Colbert took steps to take legal action, but struck a deal with the county before it came to that, Mr Taylor said.
Even for those who are ultimately let go with a warning, being pulled over for a mirror violation can have a lasting effect. In Galesburg, Ill., Brittany Mixon was in high school when she was arrested by a police officer in 2003, apparently because of the air freshener hanging from her mirror. But when the officer approached the car, she said, her first question was whether the Toyota Corolla she was driving was hers.
“He kept asking me questions like he wanted to trip me up,” said Ms. Mixon, who is black.
Even now, at 35, she makes sure she doesn’t hang anything from her mirror – or the mirror of a car she’s in – because she doesn’t want to risk being arrested.
“If I get in a car with someone and they have something hanging on their mirror, I’m like, ‘Can you take it apart?’” Ms. Mixon said. “Being a black passenger can trigger something in a racist cop, so let’s just take that out of the situation.”