The fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright on Sunday is drawing fresh attention to two minor infractions in Minnesota law that many motorists might not realize can prompt a pullover.
Minnesota law forbids motorists from driving without current license tabs, and it also bans motorists from driving with anything obstructing the windshield, including air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror.
Wright's killing reignited longstanding debate on social media and elsewhere about racial profiling as studies have shown that Black motorists are more likely to be pulled over for these types of infractions.
"Grabbing somebody for having an air freshener hanging in their mirror is a crap stop," said Charles P. Wilson, a former police chief in Ohio, who now chairs the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers. Police use minor infractions like expired tabs or air freshener violations as a way to target and pull over people of color, he said.
Former Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said that officers initially pulled over Wright for expired tabs, then noticed the air freshener. When they ran his license through their computer, they found he had a gross misdemeanor warrant. Former police officer Kim Potter shot and killed Wright after she mistakenly fired her handgun instead of her Taser, Gannon said.
Even though it is against Minnesota state law, an officer should just tell the person to remove the freshener or whatever is hanging on the mirror and send them on their way, said Wilson.
If police run the driver's license and find a warrant, they are duty bound to make sure it is not a mistake, he said. If they do have a warrant and it's not a felony, the officer should instruct them that they need to take care of it, he said.
"If it was a white person, I'm pretty sure they would be treated differently," Wilson said. "People have to understand that there has been implicit bias against people of color and low-income people in the criminal justice system for 400 years."
Wright's death prompted a group of Black legislators to renew their push to revisit or change some of these laws.
House Rep. Cedrick Frazier, a DFLer who represents New Hope, Crystal and Plymouth, said that on Wednesday he unveiled legislation that limits the suspected offenses for which police can pull over drivers.
After news of Wright's death spread, he tweeted that the initial stop of Wright "should have never happened in the first place."
The deadly coronavirus pandemic has not slowed policing of these low-level offenses in recent months, spokespersons for several law enforcement agencies said.
When COVID restrictions were first put in place in early 2020, "departments did scale back on traffic enforcement, but the efforts ramped back up in the summer of 2020," said Andy Skoogman, a spokesman for the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office. "I'm unaware of COVID having an impact any longer."
St. Paul police also said their enforcement levels have returned to normal, said Steve Linders, a department spokesman.
Minnesota law does not allow a grace period when license tabs are expired. The brightly colored stickers are no longer valid 10 days after the month listed on a license plate. Gannon never said when the tabs lapsed on Wright's car.
State law requires that a person not drive a motor vehicle with any objects suspended between the driver and the windshield, with exceptions for electronic toll devices and GPS navigation systems.
Authorities have wide discretion with whether to pull over a driver for these types of violations.
"We don't issue a citation for every stop," said Lt. Andy Knotz of the Anoka County Sheriff's Office. "It depends on the situation, but we don't have a policy on it."
Officials from Minneapolis, St. Cloud, Duluth and St. Paul police departments said that they don't have a policy regarding stopping a driver who has something hanging from their mirror or expired tabs.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465