MN court says cops can’t stop driver just because windshield is cracked

The Minnesota Court of Appeals this week struck a blow for drivers with cracked windshields.

The court ruled in the case of a Minnesota law which says, in part:

(a) A person shall not drive or operate any motor vehicle with:
(1) a windshield cracked or discolored to an extent to limit or obstruct proper vision;

If you’re driving with a crack in your windshield, is it legal for a police officer to stop you just because it’s cracked?

“No,” the court said in its review of the case of James Poehler, who was stopped in 2016 by Cambridge, Minn., police officer Mathew Giese because of the windshield. He was also not wearing a seat belt and a breathalyzer showed he was drunk, even though he was driving on a restricted license that prohibited him from using drugs or alcohol.

A district court found him guilty of driving while impaired and violating a driver’s license restriction after the court denied his attorney’s motion to throw out all evidence because the officer did not have probable cause to stop him in the first place.

The Court of Appeals has found severely cracked windshields to be a good reason for a cop to stop a car, but this is different.

“This is the first case where we are asked whether every windshield
crack of any extent justifies a police stop under the obstructed-vision statute,” Judge Kevin Ross wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel. “Our answer is ‘no’.”

A person violates the statute only by driving with a windshield crack that, because of its characteristics, such as its location and its size, severity, or shape, limits or obstructs the driver’s vision.

By analogy, we observe that the obstructed-vision statute somewhat parallels the impaired-driver statute, which makes it a crime for anyone to drive when he “is under the influence of alcohol.”

As counsel for the state acknowledged at oral argument, a police officer may not constitutionally stop a driver merely because the officer knows the driver has been drinking. An officer can no more constitutionally stop a person for a cracked windshield without having reason to suspect that the extent of the crack limits the person’s vision than he can stop a person for driving after drinking without having reason to suspect that the extent of the drinking impairs the person’s functionality.

We hold that an officer may stop a vehicle based on its having a cracked windshield only when the circumstances would lead a reasonable officer to suspect that, because of the crack’s specific characteristics, it is limiting or obstructing the driver’s view.

The officers report said only that he observed a vehicle with a cracked windshield.

Ross said the court can glean nothing about the crack from that description “except that it was a crack. This is not enough to validate a stop,” he wrote.

Prosecutors said it would be impossible for officers to tell if a crack obstructed a driver’s view without stopping the car to determine it.

The court was unmoved.

This is a diluting perspective on Fourth Amendment law, and we reject it. The state’s constitutional power to search or seize a person does not rest on the state’s showing that, without its warrantless intrusion into the person’s privacy or liberty, the state would have a really hard time finding evidence to convict the person of a crime. It is usually difficult and sometimes nearly impossible to effectively investigate certain crimes, but there is no only-police-intrusion-makes-the-investigation-possible exception to the reasonableness requirement. We can suppose that it is similarly “impossible” for an officer to determine the extent to which a person’s body contains alcohol without a stop and investigation, but, as the state has acknowledged, the Constitution demands more than
knowledge of drinking to justify a stop.

But the case turns badly for Mr. Poehler.

The Court of Appeals ruled that the stop was valid because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. And even if he had been, it would have been a legal stop because the Supreme Court has “recognized that searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact can be reasonable.”