Whoever said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” probably wasn’t referring to motor vehicle search and seizure law.   Because the “small stuff” is just what the minions of the law will use to stop your car.

Minor violations are used routinely by police to justify stops. The “pretext stop” is defined the NYS Court of Appeals as a police officer using a traffic infraction as a “…subterfuge to stop a motor vehicle in order to investigate the driver or occupant about an unrelated matter.” People v. Robinson, 97 NY2d 341 (2001).  These stops are legal.  Note the word “subterfuge”.

In Case 1, Tony Stark (no, not really) was stopped driving his cherry red Corvette late at night for Inadequate Plate Lamp (VTL § 375-2-a-3).  The tiny, cheap bulb over the license plate has no indicator on the dash showing it is burned out.  Since most people don’t get out of the car to check the lights after the car has been started, it is common to drive with inoperative bulbs.  Tony was arrested for DWI.  The case was resolved favorably due in part to the weak stop and the argument the bulb was actually working (as attested to by a mechanic who inspected the car the next day).  But the case serves as a cautionary tale….check your bulbs!

In Case 2, a number of minor violations were used to justify a stop at 1:40 a.m. The officer was really looking for a DWI arrest.  Steve Rogers (not really) passed all the field tests. This didn’t please the cop who proceeded to write him for everything he could think of, including the little red, white & blue shield ornament handing from the rearview mirror….Driver’s View Obstructed (VTL 375-30), and Unauthorized Sticker on Back Windshield (VTL 375-1-b).

I’ve seen air-fresheners, beads, tassels, and even garters hanging from rearview mirrors. Those, and bobble heads on the dashboard….all are commonplace.  They will get you stopped, especially late at night when the police are looking for drunk drivers.  It is not per se illegal to have an object handing from the mirror. It has to obstruct the view in a meaningful way.  Photos supplied to the Court with my motion showed this wasn’t the case.  The charge was dismissed.  The Back Windshield Sticker was dismissed for similar reasons.

For relevant case law, see People v. O’Hare, 73 AD3d 812 (2nd Dept., 2010), & People v. Bookman, 131 AD3d 1258 (4th Dept., 2016).   The statute was also declared unconstitutional for failing to set a valid standard as to wants prevents a “clear and full view” of the road.  People v. Lew, 115 Misc 2d 421 (County Court, Greene Co., 1982).  But, the police will still stop and ticket for this infraction, so play it safe and leave the garters where they belong.

In Case 3, Bruce Banner (it wasn’t really him) was on his way home from an anger management class (and a bar) when an officer drove at Bruce with his high beams on.  The back-story is this particular officer used his high beams as bait.  He would drive at cars with his lights blazing, and when the unsuspecting motorist flashed lights back at him as a signal to dim his, the officer would turn around and pull the driver over for a violation of VTL § 375-3, Failure to Dim Headlights.

         Two factors are needed for a violation of this statute: 1) the high beams are on within 500 ft. or an approaching vehicle, and 2) the other driver must suffer an impairment of vision due to the high beams.  The practice of flashing one’s high beams to remind another driver to dim their lights is common.  If it is done quickly and so does not cause impairment of vision, it is legal.

The Court of Appeals has confirmed the mere flashing of lights does not violate this law.  People v. Meola, 9 NY2d 391, 397 (1960).

Dr. Banner kept his cool and retained me.  His blood alcohol content was low.  He was charged with the infraction of DWAI (Driving With Ability Impaired) as well as VTL § 375-3.  Due to the dubious trolling tactic employed by the officer, neither charge stuck.

Seemingly small infractions can have much larger consequences.  Nix the window stickers and hanging ornamentation.  Watch the high beams.  Be aware the police can and will use these and other minor issues to stop and investigate for more serious offenses.   It is like stepping on a Leggo….a small thing, but painful.  If you are stopped and ticketed, call my office.  Just because an officer tickets you doesn’t mean you have violated the law.  They were wrong in the three cases above, and in many more I have handled.


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