Imagine yourself in the wee hours of one misty October morning. You are on your way to work when you notice bluelights in your rearview. The officer is at least a half mile behind you but gaining fast. You think there must be some emergency and start looking for an opportunity to get out of the officers way, after all, if slowed down by just a few seconds, it could mean life or death for someone else. You know there is a car on your right and instead of slowing down to get behind it you speed up to get in front of it so that the officer does not have to break their speed. The officer has caught up to you now and adeptly slides in behind you leaving you with the gut wrenching recognition you are being pulled over.
This is exactly how one October morning started for me in Chattanooga, TN. It was approximately 10 minutes to four in the morning and I was concentrating on getting to work. Allegedly I was speeding and pulled over by City of Chattanooga Police. It seemed to be a routine stop. I had my license, registration and proof of insurance ready for the officer before she even reached my window. She asked me if I knew what the speed limit was and I told her I believed I was in a 55 mph zone, she advised me that I was actually in a 45 mph zone and walked away with my paperwork. She returned about 10 minutes later and stood at my window making out what I assumed to be a citation. I tried to chat with her. I figured she probably has a lot of hostile stops, and after all, I wasn’t mad, she was just doing her job, just like I do mine. I was trying to joke a little and maybe lighten up her morning. Believe me, she had no personality which started to make me nervous at her coldness. I watched as she ripped away one of the carbon copies of the citation and I couldn’t see what she did with it because of the way she was standing and holding her clipboard. This made me suspicious. Why would she rip away part of the citation without first getting my signature or allowing me to at least review the ticket? She told me she was issuing a citation for doing 68 in a 45. There is no way I believed then or believe now that I was doing 68 in a 45. She told me I had to sign the citation. At this point she has not handed me anything, I have not had a chance to review the citation. I started to try and dialouge with the officer because I had a couple of questions and wanted to ask her why she ripped away part of the citation before asking for my signature. I figured her job is to protect and serve and part of that service is educating a civilian. I told her I was uncomfortable signing the citation. She advised me that by signing the citation I was not admitting guilt. I acknowledged her statement and told her I was still not comfortable and rather just go to court. She asked me then if I did not want to sign the citation and I responed to her that I would rather not and just go to court. Remember, I have yet to review the citation. At this point the officer smacks her clipboard down on the top of my car, steps back, places her hand on her gun and tells me to turn off my engine and remove my seatbelt. I was hesitant wondering what in the world is going on and why is she in such a bad disposition. I was nice to her, I did nothing that I new of to provoke her. She then stepped forward and opened my door and told me to remove my seatbelt or she would remove it for me. I did so in shock. As I exited my car I was astonished to see a second police car and a male officer on the passenger side of my vehicle. She took me to the rear of my car and made me place my hands on the trunk. She then patted me down. This whole time I am thinking she just wants to give me a hard time.
The shock and dismay was overwhelming. I keep asking them what is going on but neither responds. Suddenly a searing pain rips through my left shoulder and I feel the icy cold steel of handcuffs being secured on my left wrist. In my shock I turn to my right to face the male officer and demand to know what is going on. He screams at me to stop struggling or he’ll add resisting arrest to my charges. Both officers use force to twist me back around making me almost smash my face into the spoiler of my car, catching my right knee on my trailer hitch and twisting my left ankle until it pops. I gasped from the pain. They finish handcuffing me and then allow me to turn around. I keep asking what is happening and neither of them is forth coming with an explanation. Finally the officers respond and tell me in the State of Tennessee it is illegal to refuse to sign a citation. At this point I have not refused, I haven’t even seen the citation. They informed me that the disclaimer about signing is not an admission of guilt is printed on the ticket and there was no need to refuse. I told them it’s a little hard to see the disclaimer and not just take the officer’s word I am not admitting guilt when I haven’t even been allowed to view the citation. The male officer made a snide remark about how the story changes once someone is in Guccie bracelets. It went over my head at first and I innocently replied to the officer I don’t own anthing Gucci. The female officer went to the male officer’s patrol car and he took me to hers. He told me to get in. Again I was hesitant out of my shock. He then told me to get in the car or he would drag me in from the other side. He offerred me no assitance. With my hands painfully cuffed behind my back and I managed to finally squirm in. He told me that I was being taken to Hamilton County Jail for booking and processing and shut the door.
The smell in the patrol car was nauseating. A mixture of body odor, vomit and urine. It was all I could do to choke down my own vomit. Every little move I made sent excruciating pain from my shoulders to my fingertips. I could feel the cuffs, which were placed on way too tight, lacerating my left wrist, and both hands were beginning to swell. I was terrified. I thought this was some cruel joke. How in a free country can you be arrested for a signature? This is not a police state! This is America! It is a signature for crying out loud! They could have at least allowed me the chance to view the citation. Once I would have read the disclaimer or had the officer actually pointed it out to me I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to sign. I was suspicious as to her ripping away part of the duplicates. I don’t know which copy she turns in and I wanted to discuss this with her because before I put my signature on something I want to know what it says and that there will be no possibilty for alterations, but she did not allow me this courtesy. She questioned me asking if I didn’t want to sign. She led me into the arrest without properly educating me on the consequences of failing to sign.
I started wondering if these were really police, trying to rationalize that yes I did see the City of Chattanooga emblem on the sides of the cars. I thought maybe they realized they overreacted and were going to kill me and dump me in the Tennessee River or beat me. I have never been in trouble before and I am terrified. I just couldn’t believe that a signature can lead to an arrest. I just couldn’t fathom this being a law in a free country. The terror continues to wash over me again and again. I am screaming for help, for anybody to help me. I could feel my heart pounding, it felt like it was going to explode inside my chest. All I could think about is that I have no family here, I take care of my mom who has had two strokes, and I have no money for bail…all over a signature. My breath is coming in short gasps, my throat is raw from screaming for help. At no point in time do either of the officers try and calm me down or explain anything to me. I am left in a dark, disgusting police car with nothing but one little shred of sanity, my tears and my cries for help. I was diagnosed about a year earlier with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and in a heart beat all the panic and anxiety had returned.
The female officer finally returned and told me they were going to relocate my car so that it wouldn’t be impounded. I was still polite and managed to croak out a “Thank You.” At this point I am thinking they are going to have my car towed or relocated to the parking garage at the Hamilton County Jail where I was advised I was being taken. I watch the male officer climb into my car where he sits for a few minutes and then they take off with the female officer following my car. They take me down a dark road I am unfamiliar with and through a rough construction area. It felt like an eternity that we drove. The entire time I pleaded with the female officer, explained my financial situation and how I take care of my mom. She never once acknowledged me. What I thought was 20 or 30 minutes of driving on back roads I found out later was more like 5 minutes, but to me it felt as if time were standing still. Through this drive I was even more scared because I knew we were no where near nor even heading in the right direction to get to the Hamilton County Jail.
The officers finally come back out on the road I was originally pulled over on, Highway 153 South, and pull into a poorly lit Toys R Us parking lot. The male officer remains in my car for several minutes by himself until the female officer walks over and opens the door. They spoke for a moment and then she walked away leaving him still in my car. Finally he emerges and they speak for a few minutes. She comes and opens the front passenger door of her car and I begin to plead with her again. She states were are going to compromise and leaves it at that. For a long time her and the male officer speak to eachother and finally he lets me out of the patrol car. He then searches the back of the patrol car and removes the rear seat asking if I stashed any narcotics. I just look at him dumbfounded. He did release the handcuffs and it was almost more painful when blood was able to flow back into my hands. It felt as if someone were stabbing my hands with red hot needles.
The female officer said that she was going to let me go and that she was issuing a citation of arrest and that I had to turn myself in on November 2, 2006 for booking and processing. I’ll admit I was grateful at that time that I was going to be able to go. With a condecending tone she smirked that I had just moved myself up from City Court to General Sessions Court and that had I just signed the original citation I probably would have made it to work on time.
I was finally released and made my way to my car. It took a few minutes of sitting there to gain my composure and let my adrenaline subside. I started looking around my car and found my glove box had been ransacked, my lunch, purse and makeup bag dumped on the front seat and floor and searched. I watched the officers pull away and leave me alone in a dark, empty parking lot. I was scared to sit there, I left and passed them on the side of the road where she was dropping him back off to his patrol car that had set empty and abandoned on the side of the road this entire time.
I went to work as I was supposed to, but left early due to the stench on my clothes and the pain my body was in. I felt violated, raped. Once my adrenaline wore off and I was able to think about the experience I felt naked, vulnerable. If you can’t trust the police, who can you trust? I was terrified to drive home, and I am terrified to drive to work everyday and have to pass through that same route.
I contacted two different attorneys that afternoon. Neither of them, though having years of experience practicing law, even new that there was a law mandating the arrest of a person refusing to sign a citation. They both acknowledged that it seems to be an unconstitutional law. I was advised to go to my local emergency room to get x-rays of my knee and ankle and pictures and a report documenting the bruises on my arms and legs from the excessive force used to twist me around which also made my thighs smack my bumper hard enough to bruise. You could see finger impressions on both arms where they had held my arms way too tight.
Per my attorney I filed a complaint with Internal Affairs the next day. I was promised that I would have a resoltion to the officers behavior within 90 days. That was six months ago and I still have not heard one word. However, the Internal Affairs investigator shows up at each of my court appearances and sits with the officers after telling me she has to keep a neutral position.
During my Internal Affairs interview the Seargent heading up the investigation told me that unfortunately not all officers are good communicators, all I could do is look at her and say, “Then they don’t need to be in this job.” She ended our interview there, apparently I struck a nerve.
I was also allowed during the interview to see the dashcam which made me relive every second of the terror. I kept asking why there was no audio and first I was told by the Seargent that there is no out of patrol car audio, but when I was in the car screaming there was still no audio. She had nothing to say. At a later court appearance when questioned by my attorney, the female officer stated she had been wearing her microphone for in and out of patrol car audio but there was a “technical difficulty” retrieving the audio from that stop. The only audio on a 45 minute tape was a comment the female officer made to the male officer stating that she felt bad, which I never heard her say, probably from the panic and confusion I was in, and then you hear her tell me they are going to relocate my car and I say thank you.
The kicker of it all is that, as you may recall, the female officer stated to me that I had moved myself up from City Court to Sessions Court. I was placed on the Hamilton County General Sessions Court docket and assigned a docket number. The citation for arrest that she gave me clearly states Hamilton County General Sessions Court at the top and when I went on November 2, 2006 to be booked I was assigned a Hamilton County General Sessions Court date. However, the female officer also took the original citation that I never go to see and turned it into City Court. I was not aware of any City Court hearing so of course I did not attend since I had already attended Sessions Court hearings. City Court found me in default, issued a Failure to Appear, a default judgment and a tentative date to revoke my drivers license. When I received the notice in the mail I was stunned, even more so that notice was mailed to the wrong address. It took a phone call and about an hour of my time for two clerks, one in City Court, and one in Sessions Court to clear up the mess. The case was dismissed from City Court to continue in Sessions. I went to the Courthouse to obtain a copy of the original citation I never got to see and was amazed that the wrong address, not even the one on my drivers license was written on the citation and the officer had wrote across the signature line, “Refused To Sign.” If I was going to absolutely refuse to sign I should have been the one to write that on the citation, and I thank God the mailman new who I was and made sure that notice from City Court got to me or my license would have been revoked and if pulled over I would have been taken to jail immediately.
We have signs along the roadways in Tennessee that notify us that fines are doubled in construction zones, that we must move over for emergency vehicles or be fined, speed limits, deer crossings, that headlights must be on if precipitating, etc. But no where, not even in the Driver Safety Center is there a sign, not even in the driver’s handbook is it mentioned that if you are pulled over and refuse to sign a citaion it is an immediate trip to jail. How are regular civilians like you and me to know these little laws unless we are educated on them? This is one that I certainly have never heard of or would have thought to look up. Apparently even talking to an officer about the citation and trying to gain knowledge constitute refusal to sign. So don’t rely on freedom of speech to protect you there, apparently you don’t have the right to say or question anything or you go to jail over a signature.
I have now been indicted to the Criminal Court. I am fighting the speeding charge of 68 in a 45. My health has been bad because of the renewed effects from the PTSD lapse. My digestive system has shut down twice requiring emergency room visits, I have to see a psychiatrist and a therapist on a regular basis just to try and work through my everyday life. I have lost the ability to trust and cope. There are mornings I wake up feeling so violated I want to die. The nightmares are endless of being arrested. I dream mostly that someone has made a paperwork error somewhere along the way and I am picked up and eventually lost in the system. I panic everytime I see a cop and have chest pains and trouble breathing. I have never been able to wear the clothes I had on that day again, use the same purse, luchbox or makeup bag. I had to dispose of them all. They felt dirty. I used to admire the police and what they do, not anymore, and it makes feel like our loved ones are fighting and dying for nothing in Iraq when we are losing even our basic rights and freedoms here in America.
So before you set out on the road again, or relinquish your keys to your teenage driver, check out the laws in your state, and it may help for you to be abreast of the police brutality and civil rights lawsuits for your area in order for you to cross your t’s and dot your i’s when driving and especially in the case of a traffic stop.