Courts OK stops for dark windows on cars

A look at rulings on issue after Ravens player was stopped

November 10, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Few police officers carry light meters, so what they do when they spot a window on a car that appears to have been tinted too much?

Maryland law is very specific: The amount of light transmitted through the glass cannot be less than 35 percent.

But as with many issues, it can come down to a judgment call. And since this one can be quantified, if the officer is wrong, it should be a fairly easy ticket to get thrown out.

But Ravens running back Ray Rice didn't get a ticket. He told reporters on Tuesday that the Baltimore County police officer who warned him about his tinted windows in Owings Mills "was doing his job."

The player said he regretted wording in a Twitter post in which he seemed to be bragging that an officer let him off with a warning in exchange for an autograph. Rice and county police later said that the autograph was given after the warning, and police have said that the officer did nothing wrong.

In Rice's case, the officer approached the vehicle in a shopping center parking lot and told him his tint was illegal. But how did the officer know? And was he right?

A review of court cases shows that judges have generally sided with police more often than not on car stops for tinted windows, though a recent ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals does try to set some limits on their discretion.

In May 2006, Harford County Deputy Sheriff Daniel Wood got a tip that a black Mercury Grand Marquis had drugs inside. He spotted the car being driven south on Interstate 95 but lacked a legal reason to make a traffic stop. The court noted that the driver, Arvel D. Williams, "was not apparently violating any traffic laws."

But at a well-lit intersection, the deputy "concluded that the rear window" of the car "was darker than normal," the court said, adding that Wood believed "he should have been able to see into the car." The deputy told the court at trial that he had issued a dozen repair orders for too-dark tints but had never received training on the issue.

The deputy said at Williams' trial: "If the officer in their own opinion feels it's too dark, then you can stop the vehicle." A police dog alerted deputies to cocaine and marijuana hidden in the car, and Williams was arrested and charged with drug offenses.

A Circuit Court judge suppressed the evidence, and the Court of Appeals agreed, freeing Williams on all charges. The state's highest court said Wood's interpretation of how the law can be enforced "would allow police officers to stop any car with any tinted window, simply because it appears darker than an un-tinted window."

But the judges stopped short of forbidding police from stopping cars with tinted windows based on mere suspicion.

They said that "if an officer chooses to stop a car for a tinting violation based solely on the officer's visual observation … that observation has to be in the context of what a properly tinted window, compliant with the 35 percent requirement, would look like. If the officer can credibly articulate that difference, a court could find reasonable articulable suspicion, but not otherwise."

The 30 state troopers assigned to the automotive safety enforcement division don't have to guess. They carry light meters (the other roughly 1,500 troopers patrolling the roads do not).

Sgt. Nicholas Over, a supervisor in the safety unit, said that most officers "go by their judgment" on whether a window is overly tinted. One factor is whether, at night, the person inside the car can be seen by a person outside the car.

If not, Over said, there's a good chance the tint is too dark.

A ticket usually comes in the form of a repair order, meaning the person cited has to get the tint removed and then have the car inspected by state police.

Shop owners contacted said they follow strict guidelines to avoid overly tinting a customer's window. But Over said workers at many tint shops "will put on your car whatever [customers] want." That creates confusion when motorists are stopped and tell police, "If it's illegal, how come I was able to buy it?" Over said.

Bottom line: If seems too dark inside the car, it's probably tinted beyond the legal limit.

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

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