Q: My boyfriend was pulled over by police. When he asked why he was stopped, the officer didn’t inform him. Also in the vehicle were me, and a friend in the back seat who’s on probation and had drug paraphernalia on him (meth pipe). Our friend was permitted to leave, but my boyfriend (who is not on probation) was handcuffed and placed in the rear of the police car. At this stage the law enforcement officer had still not explained why we were stopped. Then I was asked if I had anything on me. I admitted to having meth. Although it  found during a search, I was still charged with possession. During the search, the officer kept referring to me as “girlfriend” and made me feel very uncomfortable. At the police station the very same officer spoke with me alone repeatedly and said we could help one another out. I was then also charged with stolen property. I was not given back my personal belongings (house keys, cellular phone, wallet, credit cards). As for my boyfriend, he was never arrested, but they didn’t return his cell phone to him. I feel the law enforcement officer overstepped his authority. Do I have a very good case for harassment, and can I file a report and/or lawsuit?

A: With no knowledge of the details or the facts of the incident, it can be difficult to say whether or not the officer overstepped his authority, although I am tempted to say yes. It may be precisely what the officer didn’t tell you — i.e., why he stopped the vehicle to begin with — that gives me pause. If he had probable cause to stop the vehicle for, say failing to properly signal a turn (an exceedingly common justification), then he can legitimately stop the vehicle. The remainder of the scenario is more complex, particularly with your friend in the back seat who is on probation.

Considering that you mentioned it, you’re probably aware that just about all probation terms include a search and seizure waiver. So the passenger here presents some interesting legal challenges. Whether or not the officer has the “authority” to search the vehicle, arrest you, and seize your property, presents another host of legal issues. But certainly all of these issues is worth exploring with a qualified criminal defense attorney.

As to the manner in which you were treated, you could certainly file a complaint with the police department if you feel that you were treated inappropriately. The police department will try to talk you out of this, however if you feel the officer treated you disrespectfully or acted inappropriately you should file a report regardless of their efforts to persuade you not to. Once you do, the department is duty-bound to conduct an investigation. When citizens do this it can have a chilling effect on officers’ behavior; if the cops get away with inappropriate or improper use of their “power,” they’ll continue to do so, which can lead to some terrible consequences. Please, follow up with this by seeking a good criminal defense attorney.

And don’t be stunned if the police report of the incident isn’t consistent with your version of events. Be sure, he will have a justified cause for the stop, and probably say that someone gave him consent to search the car.

If you are in need of legal counsel in a criminal defense matter in California, contact the Fresno based law firm of Hammerschmidt Law Corporation. Our attorneys can be reached at (559) 233-5333. We are also on the web at www.hammerlawcorp.com.