New Jersey – A state appeals court says it’s OK for police to stop a motorist who has little boxing gloves, fuzzy dice or other items hanging from the rearview mirror if the officer believes the items obstruct the driver’s view.
The Appellate Division of Superior Court decision Friday came in the case of Brian T. Barrows, a New York man who was a passenger in a car stopped by Hazlet officer Ted Wittke because the driver had 3 1/2-inch-by-3 1/2-inch boxing gloves hanging from the rearview mirror. After the stop, Barrows was charged with drug possession.
Barrows argued that the evidence of drug possession should be thrown out because the motor vehicle stop was unlawful in the first place.
The appeals panel ruled, however, that the stop was constitutional, a decision that disappointed Barrows’ public defender, Morris County lawyer Joseph Anthony Manzo.
“Now, watch out,” Manzo said. “A cop can pull you over for having anything hanging from your mirror.”
Drivers who hold dear their rearview mirror attachments, such as religious medals, funeral cards, graduation tassels, crystals, air fresheners or fuzzy dice can be pulled over as a result of this decision, Manzo said.
The appeals court ruling upheld a Superior Court decision in Monmouth County in which the judge denied a motion to suppress the drug evidence found following the traffic stop.
Barrows pleaded guilty to the drug possession and was placed on probation. But he appealed the denial of the suppression motion, maintaining that state law does not prohibit items hanging from a rearview mirror, and that the boxing gloves did not unduly interfere with his vision.
Manzo argued that “there was no objectively reasonable legal basis for the police to stop” the vehicle he was riding in and that evidence found on his client should be suppressed.
The state could not say what exactly is considered in the category of what “unduly interferes” with the driver’s vision, referring to part of the statute that was cited in the original charge against the driver, Manzo said.
But the appeals court disagreed with Barrows interpretation of the statute regarding items hanging from the rearview mirror. The ruling also states: “Defendant contends that the officer never articulated how the boxing gloves actually unduly interfered with the driver’s vision and, thus, the statute was not satisfied. Defendant is wrong. Wittke testified that he believed the swaying boxing gloves ‘obstructed’ the driver’s view.”
Manzo said that courts in Massachusetts, Colorado, Pennsylvania and California have ruled a police officer may not pull someone over simply for having something hanging on the mirror. In New Jersey, though, the object does not have to cause a problem for the driver, it just has to be present for an officer to pull over a car, Manzo argued.
Manzo said the state needs to have an “objectively reasonable standard” that can be used to determine whether the boxing gloves interfered with the driver’s view.
“Our New Jersey law is not real clear,” Manzo said.
“There are so many people driving around with these small items,” Manzo said. “It doesn’t say it has to be a perfectly clear view.
Barrow was charged by Officer Wittke with possession of controlled dangerous substances — cocaine and methamphetamine — found following the traffic stop on Route 35 in Hazlet in October 2005.
According to the appellate decision, Wittke observed Barrow acting suspiciously, as if to conceal something. A drug-sniffing police dog indicated the presence of drugs, it said. Barrow offered police the items in his pocket including a cigarette pack, it said, and in it, they found glassine envelopes with the drugs.
The driver of the car was issued a summons regarding the miniature boxing gloves. He pleaded guilty and paid a fine, according to the appeals court ruling.