Op-Ed by Pat FitzGerald

People who travel in New Paltz at night might be categorized as those who have already been harassed by police and those who will be.

It is important you know your rights and know how the police are encouraged to lie to you about your rights in order to coerce you into forfeiting your rights.

The following is a story that is true and that happens almost nightly in the New Paltz area. Be aware.

It was 2 a.m. on an early Friday morning.   I had just dropped off some friends at the Slash Root Cafe on Main Street in New Paltz, and went up the block to drop off a friend at her home.  As we turned onto her street men in a state car passed us and quickly spun a u-turn, put on the emergency lights and followed us down the block.  Since my friends’ home was only a block away we were already pulled into her driveway on private property when the state car pulled in behind us.  I was told I was getting a ticket for not using my blinker light into the driveway, even though he had already had his lights on before we made the turn.

Apparently he knew I was going to break some law before I did.  I gave him my license, registration, insurance card and tried to engage in some polite conversation.  He then asked me to step out of the vehicle and I complied.  He asked if I had been smoking marijuana, if I was carrying marijuana, if there was marijuana in my car.  I replied no three times.  He said he smelled marijuana smoke and was anyone smoking in the car.  I said yes someone had been smoking an herbal cigarette but it was not marijuana.  He said he was going to search my car.

I told him I do not consent to being searched.

Then the officer of the law raised his voice and said loudly “I will search your car if I want to!”

“Then you will have a lawsuit,” I replied.

Again he shouted “I will search your car if I want to!”

I said “ok” in a sarcastic tone as is “ok” bully with a gun, I guess you are going to do what you will, tough guy.

The officer of the law then had me raise my hands against my car, spread my legs and searched me.  Then he went to get the passenger out of the vehicle and as she got out she went to lock and close the door behind her, but the man had reached into the vehicle as she was closing the door and it bumped into his arm.

“What!” he yelled, “You don’t do that to me!”

Forcibly he grabbed her, wrenched her arm behind her back and manhandled her to behind the vehicle, and handcuffed her, saying again “you don’t do that to a police officer!”

The rain was now absolutely pouring down, and there we stood, me in bare feet, hands up against the car with legs spread,  my friend with her arms shackled behind her back, one officer of the law watching us with his hand on his gun while the other officer of the law rummaged through my vehicle and personal belongings.

Amazed at the violation, I said to the man with his hand on his gun “can you imagine any circumstance where a young George Washington would have been pulled from his carriage by armed men and then have his stuff searched?”

“If you don’t like this country you should get out”  he said in a angry, raised voice.

“I actually do love this country,” I said calmly.  “I am just saying, how would you feel if a man with a gun told you to get out of your car and started searching through your personal things? and I wonder who told you that you could do this to me.”

“We told you!” he shouted, and again “We told you!”

At this point I decided not to further provoke and confuse my captor, so we stood there for a few minutes quietly, still with hands raised against the vehicle, spread legs, my friend with arms shackled, in the pouring rain.

“Can we at least sit in your car?”  I asked after a few minutes as the rain poured on us.  No response.  “Ok I am going to put my arms down now, ok? I am not going to attack you or anything,” I said.

“You think I am afraid of you attacking me!?” he shouted.

I shook my head and wondered out loud “Why would I ever do that?”

A few more minutes passed and the officer of the law came back from rummaging through my belongings, told me to go back and sit in my vehicle and put my friend in the back of the state car.  They had found nothing illegal. He then gave me a ticket for not using a blinker light and took my friend to the station where she was processed and released a few hours later.

We both now face court dates that cost us money and waste our time, defending bogus charges while the officers of the law, court clerks, security guards and judges all get paid at taxpayer expense.  All because these officers had decided that they knew we were breaking some law and forced his will on us.

Somehow we find ourselves in a country where even though you are not hurting, stealing or endangering anyone, someone has made a law that says in essence “I am telling you what you as a free American can and can’t do” and  “you will do as I tell you, and if you resist, I can force you, hit you, club you, Tase you and even shoot you if necessary.”

How did we get to this point? Apparently a sarcastic “ok” is all it takes.

Amazingly, officers of the law can legally try to coerce you by lying and threatening.   Do not engage or respond or try to defend yourself from these tactics.  Stay calm and speak calmly.  Firmly know your boundaries and do not consent to anyone doing anything, or simply stay quiet.  An excellent idea is to VIDEOTAPE every police encounter with your cell phone.   They are pulling over so many people all the time that by the time your case gets to court it is difficult for them to remember the specifics of any encounter and they will fall back on the I am right and you are wrong mindset.

“I do not consent to search”  “Am I free to go now” and “For what reason are you detaining me?”  Remember these words, and say them calmly or say nothing at all.  Videotape all police encounters. Illegal search is a breach of law and you may be able to bring a lawsuit against the State of New York and the officer personally for breaking the law.

The New York State Police state that their mission is to “serve, protect and defend the people while preserving the rights and dignity of all.”  Some police officers mistakenly feel they are the law.  It is important to file a complaint with the town or state police if you have been treated in a disrespectful manner, and keep our government responsible for its actions.