SARATOGA SPRINGS — The traffic stop case of Saratoga Springs Police Officer Nathan Baker and Adam Rupeka of Troy in May has been added to a growing list of national controversy around police behavior, but with one important difference – the behavior of the arrested individual was certainly questionable.
Whether Rupeka’s decision to use obscene hand gestures at police officers followed by a refusal to obey police instructions warranted pepper spray to his eyes is a matter being determined through appropriate disciplinary and legal channels. The incident does beg the question, however, what exactly is and is not legal interaction between an officer and a citizen at a traffic stop?
Kurt Mausert, local attorney and criminal defense lawyer of the Law Office of Kurt Mausert on Broadway, says the law is clear in some areas, but not quite crystal in others.
“If a law enforcement officer pulls you over and asks for your drivers license, registration and proof of insurance, you have to produce it,” he said.
When it comes to obscenity in speech or gesture, however, Mausert said it is only somewhat defined in case law. “Basically, what the court is saying is that the communication – whether obscene or provocative – is protected by free speech unless it is going to harm or invoke immediate violence,” said Mausert. “It may not be morally or socially justified, but it’s protected.”
So it’s a case-by-case basis. Raising a middle finger to a belligerent, inebriated person in a bar could arguably be an instance where the free speech could provoke immediate violence and therefore not be protected.
“In this case, however,” said Mausert, “there were two different individuals in two different cars going in two different directions, and one of them was an officer trained in handling provocative situations. This was not a situation likely to provoke immediate violence. So, my argument in this case is that it would be protected speech,” said Mausert, “but it doesn’t mean if you can do it you should do it.”
Some might understandably think Rupeka’s actions would fall under disorderly conduct, but Mausert says the courts have ruled New York State’s statute on this is too broad, and in the end, Rupeka’s use of hand gestures will likely be considered protected speech.
But the incident didn’t end there. The officer pulled Rupeka over and made the familiar request for license and registration, but he refused to comply. So, do you have to turn those things over if the officer hasn’t made clear why you were stopped?
“Yes,” said Mausert. “It’s part of the officer’s duties to demand these things, and New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law is clear that you have to hand them over whether or not there’s a valid reason.”
He went on to say that individuals can certainly bring their argument about the validity of the traffic stop to court, but “I’ve never seen a case where a person says ‘hey, you don’t have a basis to stop me,’ and the officer says ‘okay, you got me.’ That doesn’t happen. Cops can’t get into a debate about the law at a traffic stop, hoping if they win they can get the driver’s license and registration. You have to obey the officer and reserve the right to take it to the courts afterward.”
Refusing to obey will likely land you in a holding cell, but not with pepper spray in your eyes.
“Pepper spray is a defensive tool to stop violence, not win an argument,” said Mausert. The recording of the Baker and Rupeka case on video displayed how the incident escalated and mistakes made by both parties. “This is why I have been an advocate of cameras for the last 20 years. They protect police officers from false allegations, and keep those that misbehave from conducting that behavior.”
Mausert believes police need to view cameras as their friends. Like in any industry, some officers are good, some are not, and sometimes they just make mistakes. “Cops don’t lose their humanity once they put on a shield,” said Mausert.
Incident videos make great training tools, not to mention clearing an innocent person’s name. “I’ve witnessed many cases where police have been falsely accused and cleared by a camera,” said Mausert.
For Baker and Rupeka, the video does make one thing clear. Two wrongs definitely don’t make a right.
For more information about the law and your rights, visit the blog at www.LawyerSaratoga.com.