Two New Jersey state troopers cuffed a woman along a Warren County roadway and hauled her in on an obstruction charge because she refused to answer questions during a routine traffic stop, according to dashboard camera footage obtained by NJ Advance Media.
The Oct. 16 incident, which happened near the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border on Route 519, is now the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the woman, Rebecca Musarra, an attorney from Philadelphia.
Musarra claims in the suit the troopers violated basic rules familiar to anybody who’s ever watched a police show on TV, including the right to remain silent.
She claims at least three troopers insisted during the ordeal that her refusal to answer questions was a criminal act.
Spokesmen for the State Police and the Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the troopers in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the allegations.
But, State Police spokesman Capt. Stephen Jones said in an e-mail, “in every instance where misconduct is alleged against a trooper or troopers, as is the case here, (the division’s internal affairs office) will review the allegations and investigate the facts.
“In the event that problems are identified, training and/or disciplinary measures are implemented where appropriate.”
Attorneys for the state have sought in federal filings to have the civil case dismissed, claiming the troopers “acted in good faith and without fraud or malice.” They have not yet addressed the specific charges in court papers.
NJ Advance Media obtained the footage, along with a dispatch log from that evening, through an Open Public Records Act request filed in April.
The documents show Trooper Matthew Stazzone pulled Musarra over just before 9:30 p.m., suspecting her of speeding. He was quickly joined by a second trooper, Demetric Gosa, records show.
The dashboard camera footage shows Stazzone approached the vehicle on the passenger side and asked Musarra for her license, registration and insurance.
“While you’re looking for that, do you know why you’re being pulled over tonight?” the trooper asked her, according to the tape. She claims she provided the documents but didn’t respond.
After asking her several more times, Stazzone walked to the other side of her car, rapping on the window with his flashlight and again demanding a response.
“You’re going to be placed under arrest if you don’t answer my questions,” he told her. Musarra claims the force of the flashlight chipped her window.
The footage shows she eventually told the trooper she was an attorney and that she did not have to answer questions. Stazzone then ordered her out of the vehicle.
As the two troopers cuffed her and walked her toward a troop car, Musarra asked them, “Are you detaining me because I refused to speak?”
“Yeah,” Stazzone replied, according to the video. “Yeah, obstruction,” Gosa added.
The troopers placed her in the back of the car and Stazzone read Musarra her Miranda rights — including “you have a right to remain silent” — before taking her to the nearby State Police barracks in Washington.
State Police did not provide any video from inside the station in response to NJ Advance Media’s records request. In her lawsuit, Musarra claims she was patted down twice and cuffed to a bench inside a holding cell. She also claims the troopers denied her request to call her parents, promising to call on her behalf but never doing so.
She claims a supervisor, Trooper James Butler, later entered the cell to ask her what had happened.
“I said, ‘Well, the trooper arrested me for not answering his questions,'” Musarra told NJ Advance Media. “And the supervisor indicated (to me) that was obstruction.”
New Jersey’s obstruction statute defines the criminal act as impeding law enforcement through “flight, intimidation, force, violence, or physical interference or obstacle, or by means of any independently unlawful act.”
Musarra said Butler then left to review the dashboard camera footage. After about 30 minutes, she claims, he returned and told her “a mistake was made, and to chalk it up to training, and that (Stazzone) was just a rookie.”
Both Stazzone and Gosa joined the division in 2014, public payroll records show. Reached by phone, Stazzone declined to comment. Gosa and Butler could not be reached.
Musarra claims Butler then offered to get her car, which had been towed from the scene, out of impoundment for free as “a favor” and apologized for the incident.
She was never charged with obstruction or issued a summons as a result of the stop, records show. The whole ordeal lasted about two hours.
Musarra, a private attorney for a Delaware firm who sometimes represents immigrant children in legal matters pro bono, said she comes from “a law enforcement family.” Her father is a former prosecutor in Warren County and her mother is a former probation officer, she said, and she understands “cops have a difficult job to do.”
But, she added, “there has to be some sort of accountability.”
“Who knows what will happen to the next person who comes down the road who decides they have these constitutional rights they want to assert?” Musarra said.
“What happens to them when they don’t have the sort of privileges I have?