Written by Gregory Monte.
Many states have motor vehicle statutes that prohibit drivers from hanging items off the rear view mirror of a vehicle. In this post I cite several examples to illustrate the many ways that the law can be written. Some are clear and straightforward (Vermont) and some are as vague as they come (New Jersey). I conclude by contrasting the way New Jersey and Pennsylvania courts have interpreted the obstruction statutes – the latter much more fairly than the former (in my opinion).
Connecticut’s Title 14, Chapter 246, Section 14-99f(c) reads as follows:
“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.”
Pennsylvania has a law with more specific language than Connecticut because it actually mentions the rear view mirror – Title 75, Section 4524(c):
“No person shall drive any motor vehicle with any object or material hung from the inside rear view mirror or otherwise hung, placed or attached in such a position as to materially obstruct, obscure or impair the driver’s vision through the front windshield or any manner as to constitute a safety hazard.”
Vermont’s Title 23, Chapter 12, Section 1125 is the clearest of all – there is no leeway allowed:
“No person shall paste, stick, or paint … nor hang any object, other than a rear view mirror, in back of the windshield.”
New Jersey – The Trickiest One of All
At first blush, New Jersey’s version of this law, Title 39:3-74, doesn’t even appear to apply to something hanging from the rear-view mirror:
“No person shall drive any vehicle so constructed, equipped or loaded as to unduly interfere with the driver’s vision to the front and to the sides.”
The only reason that I know that it does apply to hanging an air freshener is because I found a case using Google Scholar which discusses what constitutes a violation of this section – State v. Barrow, 975 A. 2d 539 – NJ: Appellate Div. 2009. Here, Barrow was pulled over because he had a pair of small boxing gloves hanging down from his rear view mirror …
“… because the boxing gloves are not part of the vehicle’s construction, and do not represent the vehicle’s equipment or load, defendant concludes that Wittke lacked a reasonable articulable basis to believe that they violated the statute. Defendant’s argument lacks merit … Accordingly, “loaded” applies to objects that are carried and placed in a vehicle, including items hung from a rear view mirror, such as the boxing gloves.”
So, even though New Jersey law does not specifically mention items hanging from a rear view mirror, this case makes clear that they can be illegal.
Does this interpretation apply to air fresheners? Maybe not, because the police officer who cited Barrow said the following:
“[Officer] Wittke testified that he will stop a vehicle on a case-by-case basis for items hanging from a rear view mirror based on the size of the items, how far they hang down from the rear view mirror, and whether he believed they obstructed the driver’s view. In this case, he decided to stop the Acura because the items hanging from the rear view mirror were larger than a Christmas tree air freshener, and were swaying and hanging approximately seven inches from the rear view mirror at the driver’s eye level.”
The Unreasonable New Jersey Approach
The problem I have with the New Jersey law is that it is completely subjective. Notice that the officer used his own judgement in order to determine whether the statute had been violated. What does he mean by “larger than a Christmas tree air freshener?” After all, the boxing gloves that the defendant suspended from his mirror were pretty small:
“It was later discovered that the hanging items were boxing gloves measuring 3½ inches high and 3½ inches wide”
It turns out that those dimensions are actually smaller than a typical air freshener. According to the product description on Amazon, a Little Trees Christmas Air Freshener’s dimensions are: 7.5 x 3 x 2.4 inches. So, not only are these fresheners large (at least relative to the gloves), because the 7.5 inches represents the height of the tree, this object hangs down even lower than the boxing gloves (“approximately seven inches”).
Too bad for Barrow because the judge in this case decided that the cop had grounds to stop his vehicle:
“… the judge found Wittke’s testimony credible, and concluded the officer had a reasonable suspicion that defendant committed a motor vehicle violation justifying the stop. We agree.”
The Reasonable Pennsylvania Approach
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court commented on the obstruction statute in Com. v. Holmes, 14 A. 3d 89 – Pa: Supreme Court 2011:
“… a driver is not in violation of the statute simply because he has an object hanging from the rear view mirror; rather, an essential element is that the object or material hanging from the mirror materially obstructs, obscures, or impairs the driver’s vision.”
The Court also noted that the Pennsylvania state legislature could have done exactly what Vermont did – prohibit any item from hanging – but they chose not to. As a result, it suggests some items which are probably acceptable – provided that they don’t “materially obstruct” the view:
“Finally, we note there are myriad objects which drivers commonly hang from their rear view mirrors. Air fresheners; parking placards; mortarboard tassels; crosses; rosary beads; medallions of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travel; and rabbits’ feet are but a few. It is not illegal for a driver to hang such items from his or her rear view mirror, so long as the items do not materially obstruct the driver’s view.”
Judges Both Rule and Suck
If you have ever checked out my Blog Post Archives page, you will see that I have three categories for judges:
- Judges are Funny!
- Judges Rule!
- Judges Suck!
This particular post will most certainly fit in the Judges Rule! Category because of the reasonable opinion of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. But it will also have to be classified into the Judges Suck! Category because the New Jersey Court took a vague section of the motor vehicle code and made it even more opaque.