Appeals court says drivers can't be stopped for cracked windshield if vision not impaired

The Minnesota Court of Appeals says simply having a minor crack in your vehicle's windshield is not reason enough for a police officer to pull you over, according to a ruling this month in a 2016 drunken driving case.

A police officer in Cambridge, Minn., saw an orange Saturn driving along 11th Avenue with a damaged windshield. He also noticed that the driver appeared to not be wearing a seat belt.

James Poehler, 65, was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. According to the criminal complaint, a preliminary breath test registered a .174 blood alcohol level — more than twice the legal limit.

A judge found Poehler guilty of DWI and violating a restricted driver's license.

His attorney, Paul Sarratori, argued that the officer violated Poehler's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.

"The statute's very clear," Sarratori said. "In order for a cracked windshield to be a violation of the law, it has to be somehow in the driver's vision and impair their vision in some way."

The appeals court agreed. Judge Kevin Ross wrote in a Dec. 10 opinion that a person driving with a windshield crack violates the law only when "its size, severity, or shape, limits or obstructs the driver's vision."

"They had no more reason to pull him over for that than if he had a bad paint job or he had a broken radio antenna. Just because there's something wrong with the car, that doesn't affect your ability to operate the car or endanger other people doesn't give you a right to pull people over," said John Gordon, executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota.

Gordon said officers must have a certain amount of discretion to do their jobs, but he said low-level offenses are fertile ground for arbitrary traffic stops that disproportionately impact people of color. Gordon hopes that the ruling will reduce those disparities.

Lt. Gordon Shank with the Minnesota State Patrol says troopers still will be able to stop drivers whose windshields impair safe driving. But he notes that even a small crack in the glass can mean bigger trouble later, particularly with the cold weather.

"Our concern is that losing that visibility, what started as a small crack will become a larger crack that then becomes an issue for people to see. It's a safety issue at that point," Shank said.

Poehler won only a partial victory: The appeals court still upheld his conviction, ruling that Poehler's failure to buckle up was a good enough reason for the officer to pull him over.

Sarratori said he's still deciding whether to take the seat belt portion of the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

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