Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mezuzah Misgivings

originally published in the Hartford Advocate April 5, 2007

Mezuzah Misgivings

A West Hartford man is pulled over, asked about drugs, because of …

By Jennifer Abel

When you hear the phrase "Jewish transportation analyst who visits his mother on weekends," the words "potentially threatening gangsta-type" probably won’t leap to mind. Maybe that’s because you’re not a cop in West Hartford.

New Haven resident David Aron is a 23-year-old transportation analyst who drove to West Hartford on March 25 to visit his parents and take his 15-year-old sister Rachel to a movie. But they missed their movie after a police officer, Eric Butkiewitz, pulled them over and questioned them for at least 20 minutes. Over what? Presumably a windshield obstruction.

"We were on our way to a theater in Berlin, driving by Rockledge Country Club, and saw a cop car parked there," Aron later explained in a phone interview. "As I passed him he pulled over and started following us. … When he turned his lights on, I pulled over onto the entrance ramp."
Naturally, Aron wanted to know what he’d done.

"I said, ‘Officer, what seems to be the problem?’ He didn’t answer, just asked for my license and registration."

Such situations can be intimidating. Aron asked again what was wrong.

"[Butkiewitz] hesitated before he told us," Rachel Aron recalled. "I thought that was odd." But eventually the officer told the pair he’d pulled them over because of the mezuzah hanging from Aron’s rear-view mirror.

A mezuzah is a small tube containing a scroll inscribed with a Jewish prayer. Aron’s is slightly smaller than a pencil and considerably smaller than the pine-tree air fresheners and graduation tassels that adorn cars throughout the state. Nonetheless, Butkiewitz said, Aron’s mezuzah violated the state ordinance against objects obstructing a driver’s view out the windshield.

License and registration, please. And a snag: Aron had his driver’s license but not his just-issued registration with him.

Butkiewitz returned to his car, presumably to look for Aron on his computer.

"The cop came back and told me to get out of the car … and told me to put my keys on the back of the car," Aron said. "He asked if I had any drugs on me. I said no. … He asked if they could search us."

Since Butkiewitz did not return calls seeking comment it’s not known why a mezuzah-wielding Dodge Shadow set off a false reading on his drug radar, nor why he was so surprised by Aron’s refusal: "I said, ‘Officer, I do not consent to a search.’ He said ‘Really? Why would you not consent to a search? Do you have anything to hide?’ I said, ‘No, but I do not consent to a search’ … unless they had probable cause."

By now a second officer had arrived on scene. Butkiewitz noticed Rachel at that point. "They said, who’s that in the car with me? I said, ‘my sister.’ Then they asked if I had drugs in the car."

Eventually, Butkiewitz let the siblings on their way with nothing more than a written warning. The West Hartford police department, when asked, said it does not keep track of how many warnings and tickets are issued for items hanging from rear-view mirrors.