Saturday, May 30, 2020

According to the Law

It was Thanksgiving.  I had spent the weekend with my parents and was leaving their cabin in the woods to return home.  It was just beginning to get dark outside and maybe it was a bit late to get started on a 4 hour drive, but I had to work in the morning.  So, we finished dinner, my mom made me a fresh cup of coffee and I headed out.  I was used to driving at any time of the day or night  and so I was not worried.   As I drove down a local highway I flipped my headlights on as an oncoming car passed me.  Bad timing.  At this point in my life that was my middle name.  In the rear view mirror I saw the red and blue flashes as the car did a u-turn and I realized it was a state police officer.  Oh brother, I thought.  I was just beginning my trip, really?  What a pain in the ass.  So I pulled my truck over to the side of the road, coincidentally, in front of a trailer with a few cars in the driveway.  A fact I would be grateful for later on.  

I leaned over to the glove compartment to retrieve my proof of insurance and registration and then I began to unzip my jacket in order to pull out my wallet.  As I did my zipper got stuck and I couldn’t get into my jacket.  Shit, I said under my breath.  I began to get nervous and looked up into the rearview mirror.  I saw a young looking man with a stern face, close cropped blonde hair and an impeccable uniform, approaching the drivers side of my car.  As I rolled down my window we exchanged typical pull over greetings.  “Good evening son.” he said.  “Do you have any idea why I pulled you over?”   I responded that I did not and also explained my zipper predicament.  I  laughed nervously and asked for permission to reach deep into my coat to retrieve my wallet, so as not to alarm him.  He agreed, I handed him my paperwork and I saw him take a second look as he realized I was female.  My appearance is quite androdgynous and I am often mistaken for a man, so that part was not surprising.  However, as he did, he leaned slightly into the open window to look at all of the things I had in the passenger seat of my truck.  I was traveling so I had a few bags full of clothing, a few pairs of shoes, my banjo and a bag full of food my mom and grandparents sent me home with.  He leaned in and inhaled through his nose and then abruptly drew back.  He looked at me with raised eyebrows, and said “Whoah, you smell like smoke!”  I was not expecting him to say that.  I was not expecting to be smelled.  “Oh really?” I said.  “I was just visiting my folks and they heat their home with a wood stove, so that is probably it.”    

In my mind I was having a bit of a different dialogue.  Son of a bitch.  I knew what he was referring to.  At my parents home there are several types of smoke.  Wood smoke, cigarette smoke and marijuana smoke.  It is a small one room cabin and I don’t smoke but whether or not you partake in any of those kinds of smoke, you will smell like all three even if you only stay a few hours.  I had been there a few days.  He stepped back from the door and said “Well that isn’t the kind of smoke I am referring to, and are you sure you weren’t stuffing something down into your coat when I walked up to your window?”  He proceeded to barrage me with questions and doubts about my zipper and what it was that I was hiding.  

Once again…another dialogue played like a silent movie in my head.  I was raised by a village of paranoid bohemians and was schooled countless times about the dangers of traveling with paraphernalia or being under the influence.  The ‘Man’... police officers or any authority figure really ... would use any excuse to get you and you were by no means supposed to give them ammunition.  I got that message loud and clear.  I was 38 years old and that story was burned into my brain.  Not to mention, if you stuff anything burning down into your down winter jacket you would be on fire soon anyway.  Didn't he know who he was talking to?  I was a seasoned paranoia professional.  Give me a break.  The insinuation was down right insulting.  

As I insisted that I was hiding nothing, as there was nothing else for me to do, because it was the truth, he asked if I would step outside the car so that he might take a look for himself.  My heart dropped into my stomach and panic shot into my throat as I said “absolutely, I have nothing to hide.”  Fuck me, I thought.  My head started swimming, my heart was raced and all coherent thoughts left my mind.  If my whole existence had not been taken over my my nervous system maybe I would have remembered that I did have rights and I did not have to leave my vehicle.  However his stern face and aggressive manor was perfectly paired with my eagerness to prove my innocense.  So out of the car I stepped.  I opened my jacket, he searched all of my pockets, inside and out.  As he found nothing, he took a step closer, stood nose to nose and proceeded to ask me again, “Where did you put it?  Down your shirt?  In your bra? Down your pants?  Just tell the truth.  Out with it.”

I looked him directly in the eye, took a small step backwards and said very calmly “I am telling the truth.  I don’t have anything to show you.”  He sighed and shook his head.  “Now I am going to have to search your car.”  I later learned that this was where he began to blow his own case.  You legally have to have a warrant to search a vehicle, as well as another officer present, but that was something I didn’t know.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyway.  Number one, I was already out of the car, mistake on my part.  I didn’t know my rights and therefore didn’t vocalize them.  Number two, his mind was already made up that I was hiding something and he was going to search my car no matter what, legal or not.  He had my spirit shaking under his steel toed boot and he knew it.  

By now it was completely dark and the only light that existed came from his flashlight, his headlights and mine.  He asked me to walk to the front of my vehicle and stand in the beam of my headlights so that he could see me clearly while he searched through the cab of my truck.  He started by molesting the drivers seat area, fruitlessly, as there was nothing to find.  He then moved to the passenger side and began to open and go through all of my bags, pulling out every item of clothing and belonging, dramatically and thoroughly examining every inch.  He opened my banjo, inquiring if I played.  “How long?” he asked.  “A few years.” I answered.  “Thats cool” he said. “Could you potentially hide something inside one of these?”   I closed my eyes.  “No, not if you wanted to get it back out again.  You would have to break it.  Please don’t break my banjo” I pleaded.  “There is nothing in there.”  He proceeded to shake it around listening for anything rattling.  Thankfully he seemed satisfied to comb the interior of my case, finding nothing, placed the instrument back in and closed it up, leaving it in the grass beside the vehicle where he had thrown all my other stuff.  

He then rummaged through my food bag and found a homemade bottle of wine my Grandpa had given me as a gift.  It was entirely full and unopened, but not store-bought and therefor technically unsealed, he informed me.  “You are not allowed to travel with this in your cab.”  He said.  You have to have it in the back, so this is illegal.  Why didn’t you say anything about this?”  He shook his head disapprovingly.  “Its unopened and I didn’t know it was a problem.” I blinked profusely, holding my last nerve.  “Well it is."  he stated "and I will have to confiscate it.”  

After 45 minutes, he was empty-handed and thoroughly frustrated, but there was nothing left to search.  He took the cup of coffee my mother had made me out of the cup holder and walked over to me.  It had aluminum foil over the top with a rubber band, as the cup did not have a lid.  “Quite ingenious.  Is this just coffee?” He asked.  “Yes sir.” I said.  “Why is it wrapped up like this?” He said.  “To keep it hot.”  I said.  He removed the aluminum foil on the top and sniffed it.  Then he dipped his finger in it and tasted it.  “Tastes like just coffee to me.”  He handed it to me and said “Might as well drink it, shame to waste hot coffee.”  I took it and he noticed my hands were shaking.  “Why are you shaking?” he asked.  I replied “Frankly I am scared.”  He sidled up next to me.  “Well if you would just tell the truth, then you wouldn’t have to be scared now would you?”  Once again, I looked him directly in the eyes as we stood in the headlights, “I am a teacher, you have control of my career and my life right now, I have no reason to lie to you.  I am not hiding anything.”  “Right.” he said.  “I have a mind to take you down to the station so we can be done with this once and for all.”  he threatened.  “So you said you were coming from your folks house?” he asked.  I nodded.  “Exactly where do they live?”  he prodded.  I looked at him “A few miles outside of town.”  I said.  "I think you should tell me where they live." he demanded.  I took a long slow breath.  My protective instincts immediately kicked in.  I was regaining my composure and my thought faculties, at least on the inside, and was very aware of his inappropriate demeanor and actions at this point.  I sighed and shook my head.  “I am not telling you that.  I am the one you pulled over, not them.” I said.  “Fine.” he said.  “You can come with me and wait in the back of my squad car.  I am going to run your information and call a female officer to come help me with one last thing.”

As I sat in the back seat of his car, I tried to calm down.  I looked over at the trailer I was parked in front of.  There were lights on inside and as we sat there a couple of the cars left.  I silently prayed for the last one to stay and the lights to remain on.  Please don’t leave me alone with this man.  

A local police car showed up and a woman officer stepped out.  They asked me to step out of the car and walk to the back of my truck.  The state police officer stood off to the side, his fingers laced in front of him,  while the woman prepared to search me.  She put on latex gloves while asking me to place my hands on the back of my tail gait.  She proceeded to frisk me head to toe.  She searched my shoes and socks, removed my hat and asked me to take off my bra.  She folded down the waist of my pants and looked inside my mouth.  She stopped and we stood face to face.  She turned her head and looked at her fellow officer “If this is to go any further we should take her back to the station.”  she said.  When she looked back at me, I set my jaw and steadied myself.  “If you are going to do a cavity search can you at least let me take my tampon out?”  The woman pulled my lower lids down looking at the whites of my eyes.  “How old are you?” she asked.  “38.”  I said.  “And what do you do for a living again?” she asked.  “I teach.  I am a college professor.”  I said.  She stepped back, took off the gloves, looked back at the young man and just shook her head before she walked to her car.  I fought the urge to panic as she drove away.  The remaining officer allowed me to dress, put my belongings back in my cab and wait in the drivers seat.  I watched as he poured out my grandpas wine on the road and then tossed the empty bottle in the back of my truck.  He returned a few minutes later with a ticket for an open intoxicant, a ticket for a “broken headlight” and a court date.  “You are a lucky young lady.” He said as he handed me the paperwork.  “You are free to go.  Have a good evening.” He tipped his state trooper hat like the gentleman that he wasn’t.  

As I drove the 4 hours back home my face burned with embarassment, with frustration, with rage, with relief, with exhaustion, with disbelief, with sadness and with realization.  I was furious and I understood so clearly that it could have been way, way, way worse.  I felt as if I had just been slapped awake.  One thought kept running through my mind.  What if I had been black? Or brown? Or asian?  In that neck of the woods, literally, there would not have been much distinction.  Any of those classifications would have landed me in prison or dead.  

A few months and an empty savings account later, I sat in a lawyers office with my parents describing my experience and he stopped me repeatedly to fill me in on my “rights.”  “Why did you answer ANY of the officers questions?” he asked.  With hindsight in clear view, and this new education of my “rights”, I was slapped awake again.  “That is a good question.”  I said  “Probably because he had a gun and I didn’t.”  According to the lawyer, this was not this particular officers first rodeo.  According to the lawyer, he had a history of harassing people he pulled over, often in remote areas with no witnesses.  According to the lawyer this officer had several reports of violations on his record.  According to the lawyer, it is illegal to search my car, my person or my belongings without a search warrant or another officer present.  According to the lawyer, I don’t have to answer any questions at all while being pulled over.  I can remain silent during the whole interaction if I so choose.  According to the lawyer there is nothing an officer has the legal right to do to prevent me from doing so.  

According to the lawyer.  I still have so many questions for the lawyer.  If I had been black, brown or asian, would I even have a lawyer?  How...not if...but how, would my experience have been different?  I was proud of myself for remaining as calm as I did, but If I had been black, brown or asian, how would my words and reactions have been interpreted differently?  How...not if...but how, long would I have spent in jail, if I even made it there?  If I had been black, brown or asian how MANY times would I have gone through this by the time I turned 38 years old?  According to the lawyer, I am innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.  That is a good thing to know, but what good does it do to know the law, if the police officers, people who are supposed to uphold the law, aren’t willing to abide by it?  My case was dropped because the officer made too many violations during his time with me and his reputation proceeded him.  A reputation that only counts for certain people.  Ironically, he was right.  I am a lucky young lady.  Lucky enough to be born white.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Thursday, May 7, 2020