Speeding, blowing through a stop sign, and failure to yield are all common driving violations for which you might expect to be pulled over. But the air freshener dangling from your rear-view mirror? Certainly that couldn’t prompt a police officer to pull you over?
Apparently it could, and for one Lake Havasu man, it did.
Philip Colbert, who was pulled over on Sept. 19 on Arizona State Route 95, recorded a video of his interaction with La Paz County Sheriff’s Deputy Eli Max, who told Colbert he pulled him over because of his air freshener.
“You can’t have anything hanging from your rearview mirror … it obstructs the driver’s view. Basically, it changes your perception and can cause an accident, so they don’t want anybody having anything hanging from there,” Max is heard saying in the video.
“So you stopped me for my car air freshener?” Colbert asks.
“Yes, sir,” Max confirms.
Max then repeatedly asks Colbert, a 22-year-old black man, if he has any marijuana or other drugs in the car. Colbert remains calm and repeatedly says he doesn’t have any drugs, but Max accuses him of being “deceptive” and tells him to step out of the car.
Speaking about the experience with ABC15, Colbert pointed to this as the moment that he became concerned. “When I got asked to step out of the car, that’s when I got leery about where the situation was going,” Colbert said. “I kind of felt like he just wanted to see all of me … a power play.”
Once Colbert is out of his car, Max asks him if he can search the vehicle, but Colbert says no. “I’m like, you know, maybe as soon as he checks the car he’s going to try and put something in there. He’s going to try and say I failed,” Colbert told ABC15.
Moments later, Max tells Colbert he wants to administer a field sobriety test.
“Are you serious?” Colbert asks him in the video. “This is crazy.”
While Colbert was eventually let off with a verbal warning, his attorney said Max’s actions were inappropriate. “I have never heard of an officer pulling someone over for an air freshener — ever,” Benjamin Taylor, a civil rights and defense lawyer who’s working on Colbert’s case, told ABC15.
Taylor also says he thinks Colbert was profiled, adding that “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Arizona has a history of racial profiling and a 2017 Phoenix New Times analysis of four years of data from Stanford University’s Open Policing Project found that Arizona Department of Public Safety Officers searched black and Latino more than twice as often as white drivers.
“I basically just want the next guy to not have to deal with this,” Colbert told ABC15. “This is not a vendetta. I don’t have all this hate in me. I’m mad because this is a reoccurring issue.”
Colbert told the Arizona Republic that he experienced a similar traffic stop a few months ago when an officer from another law enforcement agency ordered Colbert to perform a series of field sobriety tests despite being sober.
In Colbert’s video, Max denies he stopped Colbert because he was black and insists repeatedly that he questions all people he stops this way and tells them all to step out of their car.
Colbert and his attorneys are considering a lawsuit and Colbert has also filed official complaints with the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office, but has yet to hear yet from the agency.
In a statement to ABC15, the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office said they are looking into the matter and have placed Deputy Max on administrative leave.
“If we determine that the Deputy was at fault, we will look into the training methods to determine if this was a training issue or possibly an officer making up his own methods,” the statement read.
Max has been a police officer for six years and has worked for three different law enforcement agencies, ABC15 reported.
Colbert, a recent college graduate and athlete from Grand Canyon University, was on his way to Parker to visit his father when the stop occurred.
Arizona state law says it’s illegal to have an object attached to the rear-view or side mirrors if it “obstructs or reduces” the driver’s view, but the law does not mention air fresheners specifically.