“Please, just let me pee!” I watched the girl on the screen wiggle in pain, asking the Police Officer to please let her use the bathroom. Finally, the Police Officer gave in. Mid-way through his field sobriety test, he let the suspect use the bathroom. His body-cam showed him following her to the bathroom through the nearby grocery store. When they came to the woman’s restroom, the Police Officer stopped her, saying, “Ma’am, if you are not out in sixty seconds I’m going to come in after you.” Luckily for everyone involved, she came out and completed the field sobriety test. After I had finished reviewing the footage from the body cam and the footage from the dash cam, preparing to defend the woman against a DUI charge, I mentioned the bathroom visit to one of the attorneys handling the case. He told me that leaving a DUI suspect out of sight can help the suspect argue the charge; the suspect can argue that they weren’t drunk when they were driving, their BAC could have been elevated from drinking out of sight of the officer. I thought this was an interesting dilemma for the Police Officer. What should the Police Officer have done? Should he have followed the woman into the bathroom to watch her? Should he have made the woman wait in pain while calling for female back-up? Does this mean a female officer must always be available? If she hadn’t come out, would it have been alright for him to go in after her? As a proud feminist, I don’t have a good answer.
I worked for a small criminal defense firm this past summer, and this story, among others, helped me realize something I had never thought about before. The dynamic between female suspects and male police officers is complicated. The way the law treats woman, as I saw through the narrow lens of criminal defense, is distinctly different from the way the law treats men. Had the DUI suspect been a male, would the Police Officer have allowed him to stop and use the bathroom? My guess is that he would have, because he could follow him into the bathroom and keep an eye on him. The Police Officer in this case had to break protocol to help this woman. Perhaps that is because the law sees woman as more fragile. This theory of mine is supported by another fun fact I learned this summer. In North Carolina you can be charged with assault, unless the victim is a woman. In that case, the North Carolina legislature has a special charge- assault on a female (this is a separate crime from domestic violence and sexual assault). In order for a person to be charged with assault on a female, the perpetrator must be a male over the age of 18. This special assault charge is a Class A1 misdemeanor; this is a step up from the Class A misdemeanor punishment assigned to simple assault. I think this is an outdated law, but I saw countless cases come through the office in which the defendant had been charged for assaulting a female. I don’t think it’s necessary to create an entirely separate law just for female victims. I wish I could say that I came out of this experience with some clear ideas about how the law should change how it views women, but I still struggle to decide what I think is right. The DUI story I told illustrates something that I would consider a gray area, while the statute I described is something I am decidedly not in support of. However, I think both are a result of women continuing to be seen and treated differently than men for being more delicate, and in theory that is something I oppose. If nothing else, I am glad that my time working with criminal defense showed me that I still have a lot to figure out about what I think is right in my fight for female equality.