Imagine you’re driving home when you’re pulled over for a routine traffic stop. Your headlight is out. A broken headlight isn’t a big deal, right? In a case that’s quickly gaining attention throughout the country, that broken headlight could land one Florida law official in the spotlight.
According to the Huffington Post, Zoe Brugger, a 28-year-old mother, was ordered to lift up her shirt and shake out her bra after she was pulled over for the broken headlight. Officer Dustin Fetz claimed Brugger was acting “suspicious” and he wanted confirmation that she was not carrying narcotics.
Was Brugger acting suspicious? Is looking “suspicious” a valid excuse to order a woman to lift up her shirt and shake out her bra?
According to Terry v. Ohio, police officers are allowed to conduct searches if they feel a threat is being posed to their safety. The concept of a pat down is so officers can complete an over-the-clothes search of a person, including squeezing anything found in pockets. To complete a more detailed search, an officer must have probable cause to support his belief that the person holds something illegal.
So why did the search continue? Simple. Brugger consented to the search – the one exception to the rules of performing a search.
The officer did not stop at a bra search either. Fetz also requested to search Brugger’s vehicle. When Brugger responded no, Fetz conducted the search anyway.
“I felt humiliated,” Brugger told CNN. “I wish I had known my rights.”
Know Your Rights and Stand Up for Them
Learning your rights and having a basic understanding of the law is the greatest tool people can equip themselves with. Most people do not feel comfortable telling an officer “no” and they mistakenly believe that if they cooperate, the officer will go easy on them.
But police officers do not always administer the law in a way that aligns with policies, procedures and the law. Knowing and protecting your rights is a burden that ultimately falls on YOU.
But that’s still only half the battle. You must also have the courage to stand up for your rights. If you don’t feel comfortable asserting yourself, it’s perfectly acceptable to immediately request an attorney and to refuse anything they ask you to do – especially if something doesn’t feel right or it feels excessive. Remember – the police officer is not there to protect you during these stops.
In Brugger’s case, The New York Daily News wrote that Florida State Attorney Jerry Hill sent a letter to the Lakeland Police Department ordering an investigation and a review of how officers are trained. The police department said in a statement that it didn’t condone the officer’s conduct, and Chief Lisa Womack was looking into the incident.
What Should You Do?
So what is the underlying message from Zoe Brugger’s incident? How should you respond when confronted with a similar incident?
As criminal defense attorneys, we deal with illegal search issues all the time. In the case of Zoe Brugger, it’s clear to see that the original intent of the traffic stop is not what the case became about. So what can you do?
First, asking to speak to a supervisor can help. In Brugger’s cases (and while remaining respectful) she should have repeatedly stated to the officer “I was pulled over for a broken headlight. I would like to talk more about the headlight issue.”
When the officer continued to ask about other issues, announcing that he wanted to search her car, Brugger had every right to say “I would prefer that you did not search my car.”
It’s important to remember, if the reason you’re pulled over is a civil charge like an equipment violation or speeding ticket, you cannot be arrested for a civil infraction. So staying firm and asking to be released is perfectly acceptable. It’s okay to ask, “Am I under arrest?” If the answer is no, you should ask to leave.
Again, if you don’t feel comfortable doing this, then request a lawyer right away and refuse to answer any additional questions until you can speak with an attorney.
The more informed you are about your legal rights, the easier it is to avoid mistreatment. And when you’re not sure about your rights or unable to stand up for them, consulting a criminal defense lawyer is always your best option.