Traffic stops solely for cracked windshields just got more challenging for law enforcement in Minnesota, and a leading civil liberties group sees the raising of the bar as a victory for the rights of motorists across the state.

A state Court of Appeals panel ruled last week that a motorist in Isanti County should not have been pulled over for having a cracked windshield, because it was not visually impairing his ability to drive.

Writing for the three-judge panel, Judge Kevin Ross said the appeal by James W. Poehler in 2016 “requires us to answer whether an officer’s seeing any windshield crack — regardless of its extent — constitutes a reasonable basis” to suspect a violation of the obstructed-vision statute. … Our answer is ‘no.’ ”

The Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday hailed the ruling, saying it should make officers think twice before pulling over someone merely for a tiny windshield blemish.

“Low-level offenses like having a cracked windshield are fertile ground for arbitrary traffic stops by law enforcement,” especially of minorities, said John B. Gordon, the chapter’s executive director.

“This ruling should reduce, at least by a little bit, the number of people who get caught up in the criminal justice system and end up in a downward spiral of losing their driver’s licenses, then their jobs, then their financial security,” Gordon said. “We are hoping that fewer people will end up going down that rabbit hole.”

A Cambridge police officer pulled over Poehler in August 2016 after noticing a crack in his windshield and seeing that he was not wearing his seat belt. The officer saw signs of Poehler being drunk, and a breath test at the scene measured his blood alcohol content at 0.174 percent, more than twice the legal limit.

Poehler, 65, of Cambridge, was charged with drunken driving, but he sought to have the district court throw out all of the evidence collected during the stop because the officer violated the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The lower court denied his motion, setting up his appeal to the Court of Appeals.

A law enforcement stop for a cracked windshield is only legal when its “characteristics, such as its location and its size, severity, or shape, limits or obstructs the driver’s vision,” Ross wrote. The burden is on the officer to suspect obstructed vision before making the stop, the judge continued.

By comparison, the judge wrote, an officer cannot pull over someone merely for knowing that the driver had been drinking. Impairment must also be suspected beforehand, he said.

Experts: Fix crack anyway

One auto repair veteran is cautioning motorists not to treat the court’s ruling as a free pass to ignore windshield cracks.

Even the smallest of imperfections — many caused by a flying bit of gravel — pose a threat to the safety of the vehicle’s occupants, said Wayne Watson, owner of Auto Works Service Center in Woodbury.

“What most people don’t realize is that the windshield is part of the structural integrity of the entire vehicle,” Watson said. “If it’s cracked, it’s compromised. If a vehicle has flipped over on the roof, all that weight is on the windshield, and it has a job to do.”

Those “little spider” cracks also present a potential danger and need to be repaired, Watson said.

“When something impacts that windshield, that’s going to be the weakest point, and that little spider is going to end up going across the window quickly,” said Watson, who’s been working on vehicles for 33 years.

Wintry temperatures also exploit the tiniest of windshield cracks, Watson said, explaining that “when you get into colder weather, and the inside of your vehicle is heated to 70 degrees, that’s when that spider goes all the way across the windshield.”

Car Care Council executive director Rich White, whose nonprofit based just outside the nation’s capital promotes vehicle maintenance, points out that “repairing a small chip or crack is inexpensive, easy and quick to fix.”

Tending to windshield damage is “kind of like ignoring teeth cleaning and ending up with cavities or gum disease,” White said.

Patrol to review ruling

Lt. Gordon Shank, spokesman for the State Patrol, agrees that all cracks should be repaired — whether they impair the driver’s vision or not — before the damage “becomes a bigger issue. … Then the concern would be a driver would lose vision and cause a crash that could hurt others or themselves.”

Shank said he’s unsure whether the court’s ruling will affect how troopers who blanket the state size up windshield cracks, but, “We’ll go through this ruling, look at it and go from there.”

Even though Poehler prevailed at the appeals court level on the point about his windshield, his drunken-driving conviction was upheld. Turns out, the ruling concluded, the officer was justified in pulling him over for not wearing his seat belt.