Police handing out tickets for air fresheners
Citations, warnings for windshield obstructions up 91% since 2004
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By Dan Simmons Tribune reporter November 8, 2009
Ermir Spahiu was pulled over by police for his window-mounted GPS unit. For Tina Ross, it was her handicapped placard. And Mark Hubbard was nailed for an air freshener. All three Illinois drivers were stopped for what they thought were innocent items placed near their windshields.
"It really threw me for a loop," said Hubbard, recalling his 2008 encounter with Rolling Meadows police over a 2-inch scented medallion that dangled from his rearview mirror.
An increasing number of drivers are being cited for windshield and window obstructions, which can include anything an officer deems to "materially obstruct" a driver's vision. The only exceptions are government-issued items such as I-PASS boxes and parking stickers.
Since 2004, the number of motorists stopped by state police for breaking the obscure law has jumped 91 percent. In 2004, about 20,000 drivers were warned or cited, most of them receiving warnings. This year, the number is expected to hit about 38,000.
Offenders can expect little sympathy from Master Sgt. Isaiah Vega of the Illinois State Police.
"Driving is a privilege, and drivers should take every precaution," he said. Hanging anything from the rear-view-mirror "could be a dangerous if not deadly error," Vega said.
But civil-rights advocates and defense lawyers see something else in the stops: an arbitrary excuse to pull over drivers and proceed to a more invasive search. A recent court decision in Illinois and a bill making its way through the Michigan legislature indicate a sharpening of those concerns.
In April, an Illinois appeals court upheld a ruling throwing out a conviction for Xanax possession against Joyce Mott. The 52-year-old from Dennison, in southeastern Illinois, was stopped in 2006 because of a tree-shaped deodorizer, described in testimony as 2 3/4 inches wide and 3 inches tall.
The court found a Clark County deputy who made the arrest failed to show "reasonable suspicion" the ornament would materially obstruct Mott's vision. It recommended lawmakers "consider whether the approach we now use in Illinois accomplishes the intended result."
So far, the issue hasn't been raised legislatively in the state, but it has been in Michigan. Last month, the Senate passed a bill to overturn the law against dangling ornaments, which is similar to Illinois' statute. The bill passed the Senate 37-0 and is before the House.
It was sponsored by Ron Jelinek, a Republican from Three Oaks, Mich. "I call it a 'gotcha law,' " he said. " 'He looks suspicious. Let's stop him because he's got something hanging from the mirror.' That's not the way our system should work."
Michigan's law drew attention last December when a U.S. Appeals Court heard the case of a suburban Detroit man caught with drugs and weapons during a stop initiated because of his 4-inch Tweety Bird air freshener.
For Jelinek the issue was more personal. He became aware of the law when his teenage daughter was pulled over for having a string hanging from her rear-view mirror. She didn't even know the string was there, he said.
Timothy O'Neill, a professor at The John Marshall Law School, said window-obstructions are one of many "pretext stops" made possible by federal and state court rulings that expanded legal protection for police.
"Since 1996, we've seen more people being pulled over for trivial offenses," he said. And in Illinois, the people most pulled over are minorities.
A 2008 review of all traffic stops in the state found minority drivers are 13 percent more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. And they were 8 percent more likely to be cited for an offense, according to the University of Illinois at Chicago study.
State Sen. Dale Righter (R-Charleston), a former prosecutor for seven Illinois counties, said it would be foolish to suggest the stops aren't made to uncover more serious offenses. "A significant percentage of my prosecutions resulted from police searches after pulling the driver over for other reasons," he said.
The stops also often catch unlicensed or uninsured drivers, say defense lawyers.
Hubbard, the Rolling Meadows man pulled over in 2008 for his scented medallion, was arrested for driving on a license revoked because of a drunken driving conviction in the 1980s. He said he told the officer he was driving only a few miles to get his black Lab mix, Sadie, to the vet for emergency care. He later pleaded guilty to driving without a license.
"I still don't believe they pulled me over for the medallion," he said.
Illinois' windshield-obstruction law earned headlines -- and ridicule -- in 2002. Catherine "Kit" Morris, then a 55-year-old widow in DuPage County, was cited for her dangling rosary. She fought the $75 ticket, which was eventually thrown out.
But while the law and its enforcement give rise to some levity, not everyone finds it a laughing matter.
Steve Penczak of Addison has spent 40 years warning others about the dangers of windshield ornaments. In the late 1960s, he ran into a woman in Chicago who was crossing the street a few paces behind a priest.
The priest, in black, was clearly visible, he said. But the woman, in a white coat, was "perfectly silhouetted" behind the graduation tassel hanging from his mirror.
"I just have this vision of her on my hood," he said. The woman only suffered skinned knees, but Penczak, 59, never forgot it.
It would appear many are unaware of the windshield law. At the Schaumburg Transit Center on a recent Friday, 20 of the 48 cars in the lot had some ornament hanging from their mirrors.
Chris Cosley, a defense lawyer in Rolling Meadows, said these stops can have serious consequences for law-abiding people. What happened to his client Ermir Spahiu is the epitome of what's wrong with them, he said.
Spahiu of Chicago rented a Nissan Altima at O'Hare in June and opted to get a GPS unit. The Albanian-born immigrant had been hired by a Palatine car dealer to drive to California and purchase vehicles at auction. Cosley said he was given $200,000 in cash.
A sheriff's deputy pulled him over in Colorado for his GPS unit. Thinking he had nothing to hide, Spahiu agreed to a search, and the deputy found the cash, which had been hidden in the spare tire and in a duffel bag.
Despite finding nothing illegal, the deputy confiscated the cash, which remains in custody of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Cosley said.
He speculated Spahiu's out-of-state license and immigrant profile made him a target, and the GPS provided a reason to stop him.
"It gives police the ability to pull over people they deem suspicious," he said. "He was never charged with any criminal offense."