While some vehicle repairs should be done as soon as possible—such as replacing burned out lights—other, non-essential ones that don’t create a safety hazard can wait. Whereas most people view a cracked windshield as a non-essential repair that must be fixed immediately—especially due to the potentially high cost—a recent Minnesota case addressed the question of whether police can stop you for a cracked windshield.
At the present time, Minnesota law (Statute 169.71) says that a motorist may not operate a vehicle with a cracked or discolored windshield “to the extent that it limits or obstructs proper vision.” But how does one ascertain whether the crack does, in fact, limit or obstruct the driver’s vision?
Poehler v. Minnesota
Quite recently, a Minnesota District Court heard the case of Poehler v. State of Minnesota. In this case, the appellant was stopped by a police officer for having a cracked windshield, and the subsequent traffic stop uncovered that Poehler was also under the influence of alcohol and not wearing his seatbelt. Consequently, a breath test administered at the scene revealed Poehler’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was .174—double the legal limit to be considered intoxicated—and he was charged with DWI.
At trial, the defense pushed to have the charges dropped and the case dismissed because the traffic stop was predicated on the fact that Poehler was initially stopped for having a cracked windshield. Further, the police report never stated as to whether the crack obscured Poehler’s vision. Thus, the defense urged that the cracked windshield in and of itself did not justify the traffic stop. On the other hand, the prosecution argued that the only way to know whether the crack impeded Poehler’s vision was to conduct the traffic stop.
Poehler appealed, and the Appellate Court sided with the defendant. In his ruling, Judge Kevin Ross wrote that the only justification for a traffic stop based on a cracked windshield was whether the crack’s characteristics “limits or obstructs the driver’s vision” as stated in existing law. Judge Ross addressed the prosecution’s arguments by stating that it was a slippery slope argument that required additional evidence or the officer actually witnessing a traffic violation to justify a traffic stop.
In praising the Appellate Court’s ruling, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) stressed that low-level offenses such as having a cracked windshield pave the way for other arbitrary traffic stops without adequate probable cause that lead to net-widening and increasing the number of people who have contact with law enforcement and the criminal justice system as a whole.
However, the court held that the traffic stop was valid because Poehler wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Judge Ross added that even if Poehler was, in fact, wearing a seat belt, the traffic stop and subsequent discovery that Poehler was driving while intoxicated would still be valid because of US Supreme Court cases in which the Court held that searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact can still be reasonable. Thus, even if the police officer was mistaken in thinking that the crack impeded Poehler’s view, the subsequent good-faith traffic stop revealed enough evidence for the charges to stand.
The dangers of cracked windshields
Of course, this does not mean that you shouldn’t fix your cracked windshields. Even small imperfections or those tiny annoying spider cracks can quickly spread, especially during the winter when outside cold temperatures interact with the vehicle’s heated interior, thus affecting the structural integrity of the glass. Further, should you be involved in an accident, a cracked windshield also compromises the vehicle’s integrity as a whole, especially if the car is involved in a rollover accident.
Repairing minor windshield imperfections are far less costly, quick, and easy—as opposed to having to replace your entire windshield and risk being stopped by police.