Driving a vehicle on a street, highway, or public vehicular area in North Carolina in violation of the window tinting restrictions set forth in G.S. 20-127 is a Class 3 misdemeanor. In 2013, there were more than 12,500 charges filed for such window tinting violations. For some drivers, the violation leads to far more serious criminal charges. A police officer who has reasonable suspicion to believe that a vehicle’s windows are tinted in violation of state law may stop the vehicle to investigate. Appellate court opinions chronicle circumstances in which evidence of more serious criminal activity is uncovered during the course of such a traffic stop. See, e.g., State v. Williams, 366 N.C. 110, 110-11 (2012) (vehicle stopped for window-tinting violation; defendant-passenger subsequently arrested after sixty-five pounds of marijuana were found in the vehicle); State v. Davis, __ N.C. App. ___, 721 S.E.2d 408 (2012) (unpublished op.) (defendant’s vehicle stopped for illegal tinting on windows; defendant arrested after marijuana and cocaine found in vehicle).
So what are the window tinting requirements? They are different for windshields and windows.
Windshields. Generally, the windshield of a vehicle may be tinted only along the top of the windshield and the tinting may not extend more than five inches below the top of the windshield or below the AS1 line of the windshield, whichever measurement is longer. G.S. 20-127(b). An untinted clear film that does not obstruct vision but reduces or eliminates ultraviolet radiation may be applied to windshield.
Windows. Any window of a vehicle other than the windshield may be tinted as follows:
- The total light transmission of the tinted window must be at least 35 percent. A vehicle window that, by the use of a DMV-approved light meter, measures a total light transmission of more than 32 percent is conclusively presumed to meet this restriction.
- The light reflectance of the tinted window must be 20 percent or less.
- The material used to tint the window must be nonreflective and may not be red, yellow, or amber.
Exceptions. The window and windshield of commercial motor vehicles must comply with federal regulations governing tinting.
Moreover, the window tinting requirements do not apply to the following vehicle windows:
- A window of an excursion passenger vehicle, as defined in G.S. 20-4.01(27)a.
- A window of a motor home, as defined in G.S. 20-4.01(27)d2.
- A window of an ambulance, as defined in G.S. 20-4.01(27)f.
- The rear window of a property-hauling vehicle, as defined in G.S. 20-4.01(31).
- A window of a limousine.
- A window of a law enforcement vehicle.
- A window of a multipurpose vehicle that is behind the driver of the vehicle. A multipurpose vehicle is a passenger vehicle that is designed to carry 10 or fewer passengers and either is constructed on a truck chassis or has special features designed for occasional off-road operation. A minivan and a pickup truck are multipurpose vehicles.
- A window of a vehicle that is registered in another state and meets the requirements of the state in which it is registered. (There is no corresponding exception for the windshields of vehicles registered in another state. See State v. Schiffer, 132 N.C. App. 22, 28 (1999).)
- A window of a vehicle for which the Division has issued a medical exception permit under subsection (f) of this section.
Factory finish. Even though window tinting laws vary greatly from state to state, owners of vehicles with factory tint don’t have to worry about whether state law requirements are satisfied. That’s because, as explained in this New York Times article, vehicle manufacturers must comply with federal regulations that are as strict as the strictest state.
After-market tinting. But folks who purchase vehicles with after-market tinting can’t be so assured. While it is a Class 3 misdemeanor to apply tinting to the window of a vehicle that is subject to a safety inspection in North Carolina if the tint does not comply with the restrictions of G.S. 20-127, a person easily could purchase a car with after-market tint that has been lawfully applied in another state but that does not meet North Carolina requirements. The owner may first learn of the noncompliance through a vehicle inspection, as North Carolina inspection stations are required to test vehicle windows with after-market tinting with an approved light meter. See 19A N.C. Admin. Code 3D.0551. Those inspections are $10 more expensive than is routine. G.S. 20-183.7(a).