For years, I have kept my employee-parking placard on the back of my rear-view mirror. I am probably among many who, according to state agencies, has been violating the law by hanging parking placards, air fresheners, and the like from my rear-view mirror.
State agencies — and some Vermont courts— have taken the position that a police officer can pull you over for hanging anything from a rear-view mirror. Such violations can lead to bigger legal problems when you are driving after having a few drinks, with a suspended license, or with no proof of insurance.
The Vermont law is entitled Obstructing Windshields and states in part as follows:
“[n]o person shall paste, stick, or paint advertising matter or other things on or over any transparent part of a motor vehicle windshield, vent windows, or side windows located immediately to the left and right of the operator, nor hang any object, other than a rearview mirror, in the back of the windshield except as follows…” 23 V.S.A. § 1125 (emphasis added).
After a cursory review, it makes sense to interpret this law as prohibiting items that obstruct a windshield or a driver’s view; however, the State has successfully argued that the law says that nothing should hang from a rear-view mirror. This interpretation reads the law literally, according to its terms. State v. Berger, No. 1035-8-11 Frcr (Vt. Super. Ct. May 2, 2014). Unless the Vermont legislature changes the law, this interpretation prohibits anything— other than a rear view mirror—from hanging from the back of the windshield.
Luckily (for us who keep their parking placards where they were designed to hang), Vermont’s courts disagree and, in 2013, the Federal District of Vermont provided a temporary resolution. U.S. v. Chin, No. 5:13-cr-28, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13801, *13-21, 2013 WL 5406239 (D. Vt. September 26, 2013). Chief Judge Christina Reiss suggested that the law is ambiguous because Vermont courts have reached divergent conclusions regarding its proper interpretation; therefore, the law should be interpreted favor of those accused of violating it, under the rule of lenity. Id. at *15-19. In circumstances where the law is ambiguous, Judge Reiss stated “…the tie must go to the defendant.” Id.
Until the Vermont Supreme Court says otherwise, it is cheaper to avoid a traffic stop altogether by not hanging anything from a rear-view mirror, than to consult a lawyer. Yet, it seems unreasonable not to place a lawful object exactly where it should go, especially when the driver’s view is unobstructed.