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A breath of fresh air

If it were up to one Illinois lawmaker, motorists would not be pulled over by police for having an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror of their cars.

Representative Lashawn Ford (D-8th) is the first lawmaker to go on the record and say the Illinois Vehicle Code needs to be looked at and some laws either removed or revised. Ford contends that laws which allow police to stop motorists for administrative vehicle code offenses often lead to verbal or physical confrontations with deadly consequences.

“We need to do everything we can to reduce the need for police interactions with people for non-violent and non-threatening violations,” Ford began. “There is no reason for police to be looking at a car with the intent to pull them over, just because they have an air freshener on their mirror. That’s just pathetic.”

A majority of states in the nation have laws that make it illegal to hang objects from the rearview mirror of a vehicle. But that may change after the death of Daunte Wright, a native Chicagoan who was killed last week in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, after a female police officer said she mistook her gun for a taser.

Wright had been stopped for driving his mother’s car, which had expired license plates and an air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. Police found him to have outstanding warrants and attempted to place him under arrest; a struggle ensued and Wright was shot. Officer Kim Potter has been charged with second-degree murder.

Ed Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy for American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, told the Crusader earlier this week the ACLU is currently working with lawmakers on police reform legislation in Springfield, and this issue is something that would fall into the category of the work they are trying to accomplish.

“I suspect that before this tragic event in Minnesota with Mr. Wright, that most people didn’t even know this was possible, to be pulled over by the police for having an air freshener,” Yohnka began. “We have too many traffic stops and too many interactions between police and civilians in the United States and it is especially pronounced in urban areas.”

Yohnka referenced a study conducted by the ACLU that monitored the law requiring police in Illinois to record every traffic stop they make and include information like the race and gender of the driver, why they were stopped and other data.

The report examines several years of data collected by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) as part of the Illinois Traffic and Pedestrian Stop Statistical Study Act, first championed by then-State Senator Barack Obama.

“In 2015, police in Chicago made about 85,000 traffic stops. In 2019 that number jumped to over 600,000,” said Yohnka, according to the data.

“This is how police make contact with civilians. If you go back to some of the theories that Garry McCarthy had as a police superintendent, there is this theory that in order for police to reduce crime, they have to have more interactions with the public.

“And the vast majority of these stops according to the data was of Black motorists, despite what we know about the percentage of Black people in the driving population in Chicago. When we track the ability for officers to use their discretion to pull drivers over, the reality is police then get to use that discretion and they use it in a way which is to stop people of color because that is who they have been trained to think are dangerous.”

The ACLU report identifies significant racial disparities in searches by law enforcement in recent years, including:

  • Black and Latinx drivers were searched about 1.8 and 1.4 times more often, respectively, than white drivers.
  • Black and Latinx drivers were more likely to be asked to be searched, even though they were less likely to be found with contraband during consent searches than white drivers.

Frequently there are “Baseless traffic stops and inconsistent search standards that disproportionately affect Black and Latinx” motorists said Staff Attorney, Police Practices Project, ACLU of Illinois’ Rachel Murphy.

Yohnka said the ACLU’s focus right now is ending qualified immunity for police in Illinois. They have also tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to end consent searches during traffic violations. Yohnka believes the social climate and the political climate will serve to reform how law enforcement in America works, saying it is at the best place it ever has been in the history of the country.

“It is critical as we start to reimagine the way we want to do policing, that this law in particular (Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/12-503), seems like an easy one to take off the books to ensure that no one else is stopped because they have something hanging from their mirror,” Yohnka said. “There is a way to do enforcement of stickers without having police interaction.”

Ford said he will be speaking with Secretary of State Jesse White to come up with ways to do just that. He is also planning on speaking to the House Speaker, Representative Emanuel Welch and other members of the Illinois Black Caucus.

According to the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/12-503):

“No person shall drive a motor vehicle with any objects placed or suspended between the driver and the front windshield, rear window, side wings or side windows immediately adjacent to each side of the driver which materially obstruct the driver’s view.”

One of the most popular car air fresheners is Little Trees, manufactured by CAR-FRESHNER Corporation of Watertown, New York.

The company has several alternative products that customers can use, with the addition of other air freshening solutions like Fresh Link, Vent Wrap, and Fiber Can. These products offer a choice in style while still delivering the fragrance that consumers want, according to the company’s website.

However, their most popular product remains the one sold in gas stations, automotive stores and online, the Little Trees, which comes with a string at the top used to hang in your vehicle.

Most people conveniently hang it over the rearview mirror, but it can also be safely hung in most vehicles on the hangar hooks that are generally located on the side above the rear door window.

There is no warning or mention on the product packaging, nor on the company website that hanging the Little Trees over the rearview mirror might be illegal in your state. The Crusader reached out to the company via phone on April 21 seeking comment, but no one was available to comment and our messages via email were never returned.

“Police have all these laws that they are supposed to enforce. But we have too many petty laws on the books that allow them to harass people,” Ford said. “Laws that we know if they were not there, our streets would be just as safe.”

 

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