Did NJ Troopers ‘Punish’ Woman for Lack of Respect in Traffic Stop? See Video
New Jersey 101.5 video
BETHLEHEM TOWNSHIP — A Hunterdon County woman says state troopers punished her with a brutal arrest and a humiliating strip search because they thought she was being disrespectful.
Dawn Hartfelder’s Sept. 23, 2014, traffic stop was captured by a State Police vehicle’s dash cam. The recording shows a trooper smashing the woman’s car window with his baton and then later mocking her for knowing her civil rights.
In the video, Trooper Geoffrey L. Clark explains that he smashed the window because she hadn’t rolled it down far enough. The trooper smashes the window just 40 seconds after he first approaches her car to speak to her.
The lawsuit says Clark “instantaneously escalated a simple traffic stop into an illegal and manifestly outrageous brutalization of an innocent driver.”
After her arrest, Hartfelder was handcuffed to a bench at the State Police barracks in Washington Township for hours while being denied a restroom break, water or aid for a bleeding hand that was cut by the broken window. Then she was booked at the Hunterdon County Jail, subjected to a strip search and paraded around in an orange prison jump suit even though she was released minutes later, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last month in federal district court of New Jersey.
The lawsuit describes the strip search as “psychological and sexual abuse” and a “calculated attempt to demean, degrade, humiliate and terrify” her.
The lawsuit says jail workers were confused and surprised “at why such extreme measures were being used under the circumstances” and that they “questioned the necessity of a full strip search in response to a motor vehicle infraction.”
State Police this week declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Hartfelder was charged with resisting arrest, hindering apprehension and obstructing the administration of law. The county prosecutor, however, declined to take the case before a grand jury and sent the case down to Municipal Court.
Caught on video
The traffic stop begins with Hartfelder opening her car door.
Clark yells at her to shut her door, which she does. After her arrest, Clark says she had “slammed” her door, indicating her “attitude right from the beginning.”
After she closes her door, the troopers approach her car on the passenger side and Clark almost immediately threatens to arrest Hartfelder.
“Roll the window down so I can talk to you now,” he says after she apparently rolls the window down just a crack. “Roll the window down and give me your license, registration and insurance. Do it now.”
Hartfelder replies something that can’t be heard on the officer’s recorder, after which Clark walks around to the driver’s side.
“Open the door or I am going to break the window!” he says. "Roll the window down, unlock the door or I am going to break the car. Last chance!”
That’s when Clark smashes the window and Hartfelder screams, “You can’t do that!”
When she is in the backseat of the police cruiser, Clark tells Hartfelder that she doesn’t “have to worry because all of this is videotaped and recorded.”
“You had your opportunity, you had every opportunity!” Clark shouts. “You know your rights, you got your law degree? You think about it back there.”
“If you had opened your window and you had conducted yourself like an adult,” he adds. “You didn’t open your window enough for me to talk. I’m not going to talk through a window and you didn’t hand me your documents.”
Another window-smash lawsuit
Hartfelder's lawsuit is the latest stemming from a State Police traffic stop in Hunterdon County that involved a trooper smashing a driver's window.
A Bayonne man is suing State Police after they pulled him over in 2014 for driving more than 100 mph on Route 78.
Dennis Ortiz passed a road-side sobriety test and got back into his car. State Police say they tried to get Ortiz out of the car again when they learned his license had expired. Ortiz declined to get out of the car after troopers told him that he was not under arrest. But then troopers smashed his window and arrested him.
Criminal charges against Ortiz also were dropped. His lawsuit, also filed in federal court, is pending. His attorney previously told WPG's sister station, New Jersey 101.5, that troopers escalated the stop because they were trying to find something incriminating in his car.
What to do in a traffic stop
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey says police can stop vehicles if they have probable cause of a crime or traffic offense.
When it comes to traffic stops, the ACLU says:
— Drivers must show license, registration, and insurance card.
— Police can search a car if they have a warrant, if the driver gives permission, or police develop probable cause that they will find something illegal or evidence of a crime.
— Police can order a driver out of the car but may not order a passenger out unless they have a specific safety concern.
— Drivers suspected of drunk driving can be required to take an alcohol screening test. Refusal can result in loss of driving privileges.
Law enforcement officials add that people should remain in their car, keep their hands in view and be polite.
A 'calm' woman
Hartfelder's lawsuit describes her as a “calm 43-year-old woman with no indications of violence,” who, “despite the superabundance of abuse and manhandling dished out to her, […] retained a remarkable level of composure.”
The lawsuit faults Clark’s partner, Trooper W.H. Cox for not stopping Clark.
The 11-page complaint seeks an unspecified amount of damages for civil rights violations, suffering and punitive damages.
Hartfelder is represented by Edward J. Hesketh of Branchburg.