New Jersey state troopers said declining to answer a question is a crime.
After New Jersey state troopers arrested Rebecca Musarra for remaining silent, they informed her, “You have the right to remain silent.” That should have been a clue that something was amiss with their legal justification for hauling her off to jail.
According to a federal lawsuit filed by Musarra, a Philadelphia attorney, and dashcam footage recently obtained by NJ Advance Media, Trooper Matthew Stazzone pulled her over for speeding on October 16 and asked for her license, registration, and proof of insurance. She handed over the documents but did not respond when Stazzone asked her a question. He repeated the question several times, becoming increasingly agitated and warning her that she would be arrested if she did not answer. Here is the vitally important question that Stazzone kept asking: “Do you know why you’re being pulled over tonight?”
In other words, Stazzone was trying to get Musarra to incriminate herself. She declined to do so. Mind you, she did not say, “I decline to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me,” or “I am asserting my Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.” But she did eventually identify herself as an attorney, saying she was not legally required to answer Stazzone’s question. Unimpressed, he proceeded to handcuff and arrest her with the assistance of another trooper, Demetric Gosa.
When Musarra asked if she was being arrested for remaining silent, Gazzone replied, “Yeah.” Gosa added, “Yes. Obstruction.” New Jersey defines obstruction of justice as impeding the administration of the law “by means of flight, intimidation, force, violence, physical interference, or through any independently unlawful act.” Sitting quietly in your car while a cop asks if you know why you were pulled over does not fall into any of those categories.
Musarra says she was patted down twice, taken to the state police barracks in Washington, and placed in a holding cell, where she was handcuffed to a bench. After a supervisor, Trooper James Butler, watched the dashcam video, he realized there was no legal basis for the arrest. According to Musarra, Butler said “a mistake was made, and to chalk it up to training, and that [Stazzone] was just a rookie.” She was released two hours after the traffic stop. She was neither charged nor cited.
A state police spokesman told NJ Advance Media the incident is under investiigation. “In the event that problems are identified,” he said, “training and/or disciplinary measures are implemented where appropriate.” In response to Musarra’s lawsuit, the state argues that Stazzone and Gosa “acted in good faith and without fraud or malice.”