Minnesota law prohibits motorists from hanging objects from their car's rearview mirror, though an infraction seldom leads to a ticket.
But in the wake of the police killing of Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man who was shot by a white officer during a traffic stop April 11, the law is getting fresh attention. Two state legislators have introduced a measure that would repeal the law, which advocates say gives police an excuse to target Black drivers.
Former Brooklyn Center police officer Kimberly Potter shot Wright after mistaking her gun for her Taser, according to police. Police later said they stopped Wright because he was driving with expired license tabs, but Wright's mother, Katie Wright, has said she was on the phone with her son during the stop, and he believed he was being stopped for having an air freshener dangling from his car's rearview mirror.
Soon, police may not be able to make a stop for either reason. The Minnesota House on Thursday passed a public safety package that incorporates many police accountability measures sought by activists, including limits on when police can pull over vehicles. Having expired tabs or items such as an air freshener hanging from a rearview mirror would be among the violations no longer eligible for a stop.
Rep. Erik Mortensen, R-Shakopee, had also introduced a separate bill — now in committee — intended to take unnecessary laws off the books and reduce interactions with police officers when there is no immediate threat to public safety.
"Every single driver on the road has an inherent interest in being able to see outside of their windshield, so my bill would repeal a ridiculous law that nobody has an interest in violating anyway," Mortensen said.
The law on the books since 1957 states that objects — such as air fresheners, fuzzy dice and disability parking certificates — may "not be suspended between the driver and the windshield." The offense, a petty misdemeanor, carries a fine of up to $300.
It also is illegal to drive if "items or people obstruct your view to the front or sides of the vehicle, or interfere with your ability to control the vehicle," the Minnesota Driver's Manual states.
State and national park permits, safety inspection stickers, electronic toll collection devices and GPS and navigation systems can legally be mounted or located at the bottommost portion of the windshield, according to the driver's manual.
Many states, including California and Pennsylvania, also make it illegal for drivers to hang things near the windshield that "materially obstruct" their vision, though others don't bar drivers from hanging things from the rearview mirror if they don't block the driver's vision.
Over the past five years, 1,722 drivers across Minnesota have faced charges for hanging an object from their rearview mirror, according to court records. That compares with 2,575 tickets issued for broken or nonworking rear taillights and 154,569 for drivers not wearing seat belts, court records show.
Nearly 43% of citations from 2016 through 2020 were issued in Hennepin County, including 76 last year. In Ramsey County, law enforcement issued 179 citations in that period, but only seven last year. Drivers in the metro area were more likely to be ticketed than those outstate, according to court data.
Tickets statewide have declined from a high of 437 in 2017 to 196 last year. But some, including the Minnesota chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), would like to see that number fall to zero.
"We have a deep concern that police here appear to have used dangling air fresheners as an excuse for making a pretextual stop, something police do all too often to target Black people," the ACLU said in a statement. "Having armed police making traffic stops is a dangerous, racist and unnecessary practice that doesn't aid public safety."
Traffic stops are the most common interaction Americans have with police. On a typical day, police pull over more than 50,000 drivers — more than 20 million people a year, according to a September report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Black drivers were about 20% more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the population, according to a study released last year by a team of researchers from Stanford University and New York University who analyzed a data set of nearly 100 million traffic stops across the country over nearly a decade.
Proponents say these minor stops are an effective tool that alert police to more serious crimes. But the threat of such stops makes Minnesota an unsafe place for Black people to drive, Brooklyn Center Mayor Mike Elliott said during a recent interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
"That is a kind of terror that no citizen of the United States should ever have to face," Elliott said. "It's constant. It's ever-present. It's something that must change."
Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768