When I first moved to Colorado in 1996, I was stopped by police in Summit County on I-70. The police officer passed me, slowed to 35 mph. After about five minutes of putzing along behind the police car, I signaled that I was changing lanes, passed him while not breaking 55 mph, drove well past the officer, signaled that I was returning to the right lane, and then was greeted with flashing lights and pulled over by the police officer. He cited me for obstructing my vision with small fuzzy dice hanging from from rear view mirror, and signaling my return to the right lane about half a second too soon. It was bullshit and we both knew it. I was really stopped because I was a single man driving alone in late model car with New York plates that was sagging under all my wordly possessions. I remained calm, explained myself, let him look in the trunk, and got off with a warning.
Tactics in Summit County haven’t changed much. Russel Armando, pulled over in a similar stop, allegedly for having an air freshener hanging from his rear view mirror, wasn’t so lucky. He had a suspended license, marijuana in his pocket, and cocaine in the car, all discovered after the stop. The trial judge and Colorado Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, however, were no more impressed with the Armando’s stop than I was with mine.The officer testified, in accordance with what appears to be standard Summit County police policy, that:
[H]e believed that it was legal to stop a vehicle solely on the basis that an air freshener was hanging from the rearview mirror.
The officer’s testimony that there was one large air freshener was also contrary to the fact that there were in fact three very small ones, each extending no more than an inch from the rear view mirror. In other words, there was good reason to believe that the police officer lied to the judge.
The Colorado Supreme Court stated that:
Observing an air freshener or like item hanging from a rearview mirror is not automatically a basis for a traffic stop.
Drug task force officers had asked the officer making the stop to stop the car but failed to provide him with any reason to do so and the vehicle was observing all other traffic laws. The government argued that because other officers had observed the truck engaging in conduct consistent with truck transportation and had been following it for some time, the stop was valid. But, the Colorado Supreme Court held that because the officer didn’t know about those facts at the time of the stop, that this information was irrelevant to the legality of the stop.
Therefore, the drugs seized in the stop were suppressed, and Mr. Armando will be spared a significant prison sentence for transporting illegal drugs.
Justice Eid was joined by Justice Coats and Justice Rice in dissenting. They argued that the trial judge’s judgment was colored by a view that the statute banning obstructions in a window were unduly vague. Justices Eid and Coats frequently dissent from Colorado Supreme Court rulings on conservative grounds. Justice Rice more often votes with the majority of Colorado’s high court.