The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. A police officer who stops and detains a person momentarily to investigate suspected criminal activity has not been unreasonably seized if the officer can articulate specific and reasonable facts to warrant detention. Generally speaking, in Minnesota, an officer may constitutionally stop a motor vehicle if the officer reasonably suspects that the driver has violated Minnesota’s traffic law.
Police officers routinely use technical violations of the traffic law to stop vehicles–particularly late at night–as a pretext to conduct DWI investigations and arests. The list of common violations includes minor speed infractions, wide turns, failing to properly use a turn signal, and a license plate light being out.
While these are the common bases for a traffic stop, police officers sometimes use hyper-technical violations of the law to conduct a traffic stop. Fortunately, the Minnesota Court of Appeals recently reiterated that courts must carefully scrutinize hyper-technical violations to ensure that a complete violation is actually present so that public’s right to privacy is not violated.
In State v. Poehler, an officer stopped a motor vehicle because of a cracked windshield. During the traffic stop, Poehler was arrested for DWI. He later challenged the stop and arrest on the basis that the officer did not establish that Poehler actually violated the cracked windshield law. To be in violation of the cracked windshield law, a vehicle must (1) have a crack in the windshield, and (2) the crack must obstruct the driver’s view of the roadway.
The officer established a crack in the windshield but never established the fact that the crack obstructed the driver’s view of the roadway. Because the officer had not established a complete violation of the cracked windshield law, the Minnesota Court of Appeals rejected the purported basis for the traffic stop.
This is not the first time a Minnesota court has reached this conclusion. In State v. Thoesen, a police officer stopped a vehicle with Colorado license plates because the officer believed the driver’s window tint violated Minnesota law. While the officer was correct that the window tint was darker than allowed in Minnesota, there was no violation of the law because the window tint law only applies to vehicles that are required to be registered in Minnesota. Because there were no facts before the officer that would lead him to believe the vehicle was required to be registered in Minnesota, the Minnesota Court of Appeals invalidated the traffic stop.
These are sound decisions. If police officers are going to rely on hyper-technical violations of the traffic law to justify invasions of personal privacy, then it is only fair that courts scrutinize the facts and the law to determine whether a violation actually is present.