Dwight Gordon headed west on Alligator Alley to make the weekly drive from his family home in Miami to his kids in Sarasota.
It was mid-day, sunny, light traffic, Gordon recalled. His 1988 Cadillac de Ville smelled like cherries from the two red tree-shaped air fresheners hanging from his rearview mirror.
Just before the turn north toward Naples, he passed two Collier County deputies. He made sure he wasn’t speeding. Minutes later, emergency lights flashed behind him.
A deputy asked him if he knew why he’d been pulled over. Gordon, then 32, said he was at a loss.
It was the air fresheners, the deputy told him. He said they were blocking Gordon’s view.
For Gordon, that July 2, 2003 day is chilling to recall now, so soon after a Minnesota officer shot and killed Daunte Wright.
Wright’s mother told reporters her 20-year-old son believed he’d been pulled over April 11 because of the air fresheners hanging from his mirror. The police chief said Wright’s tag was expired and there was a warrant for his arrest.
He was killed by a police officer who authorities say mistook her gun for her Taser and now faces a manslaughter charge. That such a minor infraction could lead to the police killing of another Black man has stoked national outrage.
States have varying laws that prohibit accessories or tint from blocking a driver’s view. But it’s up to the police and courts to interpret them.
That includes Florida. But thanks to Gordon’s case, the question of whether an officer can pull someone over because of an air freshener was settled years ago.
“I’m not a legal scholar or anything,” said Gordon, now 50, “but I just knew that that wasn’t it.”
‘It was appalling’
Like Wright, Gordon is Black. He grew up in the Miami area with his grandmother warning him about the police: don’t run, don’t talk back, don’t do anything that could provoke them.
So it was hard for Gordon not to see the 2003 traffic stop as discrimination.
“It was profiling,” he said. “It was absolutely profiling.”
A Collier County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said there was no evidence the stop was racially motivated and that the agency has policies against profiling.
Gordon said he asked the deputies how something hanging from his rearview mirror in the middle of the windshield could possibly block his view on the driver’s side.
The deputies told him to get out of the Cadillac, so they could search it. One of the deputies had a police dog, who signaled toward the trunk. Deputies found a box of laundry detergent, according to court records, and inside the box, they found a clear plastic bag with about 9 ounces of cocaine.
They arrested Gordon and took him to jail, where he soon was released on bail. He got a defense attorney, Liane McCurry, who was immediately skeptical of the traffic stop.
“It was appalling,” the Sarasota attorney recently told the Tampa Bay Times. “That’s just a blatant on-its-face wrong.”
And because the cocaine was collected during what McCurry and Gordon felt was an unlawful traffic stop, they believed the whole case should be thrown out. Evidence obtained during an illegal search is not admissible in court.
McCurry said she tried to convince the prosecutor to drop the case, but the state moved forward and charged Gordon with cocaine trafficking. She filed a motion to suppress the evidence, which a circuit judge denied. During the hearing, court records show one of the Collier deputies said he had pulled over hundreds of drivers for similar reasons.
Gordon pleaded no contest to the charge, leaving the door open to appeal the judge’s ruling on the motion to suppress the evidence. A judge convicted him in March 2004 and sentenced Gordon to a mandatory minimum of seven years in prison, three years of probation after prison and a $100,000 fine, records show.
He was taken to Gulf Correctional Institution in the Panhandle, more than 400 miles from his young children in Sarasota.
The word ‘upon’
The state fought the appeal. Its case hung on two Florida laws.
One prohibits a driver from operating a car “with any sign, sunscreening material, product, or covering attached to, or located in or upon, the windshield” with a few exceptions, such as a toll transponder.
The other prohibits driving with “any sign, poster, or other nontransparent material upon the front windshield, side wings, or side or rear windows of such vehicle which materially obstructs, obscures, or impairs the driver’s clear view” of the road.
The judges of the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which presides over appeals from a swath of Central Florida including Tampa Bay, weighed both statutes. While the deputies had a “good faith belief” to stop Gordon, the judges noted, their analysis of whether it was legal came down to the word “upon” in each law. The word “denotes direct contact,” according to the unanimous ruling.
“Thus driving with air fresheners or other objects hanging from the vehicle’s rearview mirror does not violate” the statutes, the ruling says.
The three-judge panel reversed Gordon’s conviction and sentence on May 13, 2005. McCurry called to tell him the news.
“It is definitely that high-energy, heart-pounding, mind-racing type of a feeling,” he said of that day. “It’s almost that feeling of fear because you’re like, ‘Is it real?’”
It was. Gordon was freed just in time for his son’s fourth birthday. He went back to Sarasota, took a shower and went straight to the party supply store.
‘The safest traffic stop ... is no traffic stop’
Because of Gordon’s legal victory, Florida law enforcement officers can no longer use air fresheners to justify pulling someone over.
But the state has a long list of traffic laws, some better known than others, said Joel Elsea, a Tampa defense attorney and former Hillsborough prosecutor.
Elsea pointed out a law that says when making a right turn, the turn “shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.” So turning and heading straight for the far left lane could be an infraction.
That’s just one lesser-known rule amid Florida’s massive Uniform Traffic Control Statute.
“The more rules on the books,” Elsea said, “you can only expect there’s going to be more interaction between law enforcement and members of the public.”
Those interactions come with racial disparities, according to an analysis of 100 million traffic stops conducted by the Stanford University Open Policing Project. Officers stop Black drivers at higher rates than white drivers, researchers found, and search Black and Hispanic drivers more often as well.
Researchers also found that the police need less suspicion to search Black and Hispanic drivers.
While legal disputes can be worked out in a courtroom, Elsea said, traffic stops can be emotional and unpredictable.
“Tensions are high. You’ve got at least one armed party,” he said. “In many cases, people on both sides of a traffic stop have strong opinions about whether they are right or wrong.
“I guess the safest traffic stop for everyone is no traffic stop.”
Today, Gordon lives in Bradenton and installs heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. He learned a lot from his encounter with law enforcement all those years ago, he said. Gordon’s mother had him at 14, and he grew up struggling, with drugs as an option to make extra money.
“I did what I did because, to me, it would eliminate struggle, eliminate suffering, and it kind of sort of did,” he said. “But then the cost arrived, and I learned that it wasn’t worth it.”
When he saw the news about Wright’s death this month, he thought about how differently his experience could have gone.
“I don’t think too many of us get a chance to have these type of interactions and not only live to tell about it but also explain it,” he said.
Gordon still hangs air fresheners on his rearview mirror — but he can never stop thinking about them.
“As soon as I don’t smell it, it’s coming down.”