Vehicle Air Fresheners in Florida: What a 16-Year-Old Ruling Says About When the Police Can (and Can’t) Pull You Over

Many criminal cases, including those here in Florida, begin not with a police search executed pursuant to a valid search warrant, but with a traffic stop. In a significant percentage of those cases, that initial stop was unlawful, which means that all the evidence obtained as a result of that stop should be suppressed at trial. Getting that gun, those drugs, or other evidence excluded from your criminal case requires a skillfully crafted and coherently advanced motion to suppress, and that represents just one of the multitude of places where a knowledgeable Tampa Bay criminal defense lawyer can make the difference between conviction and acquittal.

Traffic stops have, of course, been in the news lately, including to our north. D.W., a Minnesota man, was pulled over by police and, eventually, was fatally shot by one of those officers. Police said that they pulled D.W. over for an expired license plate but, shortly before his death, D.W. told his mother that he believed the police had pulled him over for the air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror.

In Minnesota, things like air fresheners and fuzzy dice hanging from your rearview mirror are a valid basis for pulling you over. But here in Florida, the air freshener you have hanging from your rearview mirror cannot be the grounds for a valid traffic stop and, if the police do that, then any evidence they find is something you potentially can get suppressed. We know this because of a 2005 case decided by the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

In that case, which was the subject of a recent Tampa Bay Times report, police stopped D.G., a Miami man, as he traveled across Alligator Alley because he had two air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror. The man, who was en route to see his children in Sarasota, had committed no other traffic violations. The police ran a records check; it came back negative. The police continued their search and found approximately nine ounces of cocaine in the trunk of the man’s Cadillac.

The appeals court decided the suppression motion in D.G.’s favor on a very technical basis: the law, the court said, prohibited only items located in or upon the driver’s windshield. An air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror did not meet that definition, so D.G. had committed no traffic violation at all.

Failure to Signal, Broken License Plate Lights, and Cracked Windshields

Of course, things hanging from rearview mirrors are far from the only traffic violation basis that police use to pull over drivers whose vehicles they might desire to search. Another is the failure to signal a turn. Again, it is important to recognize what the law in Florida does – and does not – permit. The Florida Supreme Court issued a ruling several decades ago that said that a failure to signal a turn is only a violation if that failure somehow affected another vehicle on the road.

So, if you fail to signal a right turn on a deserted street late at night, that’s not a valid basis for the police to initiate a traffic stop.

Another common one is the broken license plate light. The Second District court issued a ruling back in 2007 that said that partial illumination is not a violation. So, if you have one license plate bulb working and one not, that is not a valid basis for the police to pull you over.

As for a cracked windshield, not just any crack is enough to trigger a valid traffic stop. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that a cracked windshield is a valid basis for a stop only if the crack makes the vehicle so unsafe “as to endanger any person or property.”

If you have been arrested because the police found something in your vehicle after a traffic stop, it is possible that the stop was illegal, and the evidence is inadmissible at trial. When it comes time to suppress all the inadmissible proof in your case, you need the right legal team on your side. Count on the knowledgeable drug crime defense attorneys at Blake & Dorsten P.A. to provide the effective advocacy you need for success. Call us today at (727) 286-6141 to schedule your FREE initial consultation.

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