Legal Alert - 6th Circuit Upholds Obstructed Vision Law

Not a day goes by when I don’t notice a vehicle on the road with something dangling from their rearview mirror. You may find it odd that I notice things like that, but for years I’ve known that those ever-present danglers, whether it is the popular gas station air fresheners, Mardi Gras beads, or other items, created what Michigan law says is an “obstructed vision”.

When I enrolled in criminal procedure class in law school, we discussed countless cases where an individual (I would call them a suspect or criminal, but at this point, they were simply someone the police wanted to pull over) would get pulled over for something trivial, however, the police ended up finding some sort of contraband in the vehicle or that the person had a warrant out for their arrest. So long as police have a legitimate reason to pull someone over, even if it is for a simple, dangling air freshener, whatever the officer finds after that is fair game (with some exceptions).

I mention this because the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, of which Michigan is included, recently ruled that Michigan’s obstructed vision law is constitutional. In other words, officers can continue to legally pull people over for this minor violation.

This law was up in the air for months when a Michigan man challenged his arrest after being pulled over by police due to a small air freshener hanging from his rearview mirror. That man, Lonnie Ray Davis, was pulled over by Westland police after 2:00am. In his car, police found a loaded gun, cocaine and an open pint of liquor. He was later convicted on federal weapons and drug charges, but the Circuit Court of Appeals, on appeal, questioned whether Michigan’s law was unconstitutionally vague.

In an unusual move, the Court didn’t overturn the conviction, they simply asked whether the law was too ambiguous and gave too much discretion to police to make arbitrary decisions about the definition of “obstruction”. Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox intervened to defend the law, and the Court, in an obvious and odd change of heart, agreed with the AG. The Court ruled, “the law’s language is unqualified: an obstruction of any size for any amount of time falls within it”.

The result of the decision is that any dangling object from a rearview mirror will trigger a violation of the statute. Davis’s attorney has vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court; however, the highest court in our country receives over 10,000 petitions every year, and only accepts approximately 150 for consideration. As a result, it is a good chance that this law will continue to be on the books as written, and police will continue to use it to their advantage. Therefore, hang those air fresheners down low, and save the beads for Mardi Gras.

This publication is for general information only and is not intended as formal legal advice. If you have any questions or need assistance, please contact Curtis & Curtis, P.C.

Curtis & Curtis, P.C. is a full service law firm located in Jackson, Michigan providing superior legal services and advice to individuals, families and businesses throughout mid-Michigan since 1901.