San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Driver Alleges Traffic Cop Harassed Her

A 22-year-old Costa Rican woman says she is on anxiety medicine and is afraid to go on the roads after a traffic cop impounded her vehicle when she denied his sexual advances.

It was about 3 a.m. on a Saturday morning when traffic police stopped Jennifer Fernández at a checkpoint in the western suburb of Escazú set up to weed out drunk drivers.

Police gave her a Breathalyzer test. Fernández had been drinking, she admitted.

The Breathalyzer revealed she was driving under the influence, according to traffic official Oscar Barrantes, who administered the test. Barrantes opened the driver’s door and told her to move over to the passenger seat because he was going to take her car.

According to Fernández, Barrantes allegedly drove her to a dark street. The Desamparados resident said she was wet and shoeless because she had been tossed into a pool during a party she had attended earlier that night.

That’s when Barrantes allegedly harassed her, asked to see her underwear and asked her why she wouldn’t take her clothes off, Fernández alleged. He stuck his hand up her skirt despite her refusal to comply, Fernández alleged.

“He started to show me his pistol to scare me,” Fernández said. Then he threatened to impound her car. Barrantes denies having made the threat and advances.

Fernández insisted she would pay him a bribe if he wanted, but he refused.

After Fernández repeatedly refused Barrantes’ alleged sexual advances, Barrantes allegedly threw her belongings out of her car and left her outside a nightclub in La Uruca, in northwestern San José. Then he took off with her car.

“A taxi driver picked me up outside of the nightclub. I was all wet. He asked me if I was a nightclub dancer. I wanted to die,” Fernández said.

Barrantes denied that he harassed Fernández during the June 29 incident.

“That’s what she was saying but she doesn’t have a photo or a recording. We’re public officials and people file complaints against us all the time,” Barrantes said.

Barrantes did, however, admit that he drove Fernández from Escazú to La Uruca, and says once there he helped move her things into a taxicab.

Though there were some 10 officers witnesses to the Breathalyzer test, Fernández didn’t get a ticket that night and there were no witnesses during the drive between Escazú and La Uruca.

Barrantes says he forgot to give her a ticket because she was crying and making a scene when he dropped her off at the nearest taxi stop, which happened to be in La Uruca. He says he turned in the ticket to the traffic infractions department later.

Fernández said she obtained a copy of the ticket six days later when she located her impounded car at the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI).

“All weekend, I thought he robbed my car,” said Fernández, explaining she didn’t receive any paperwork when Barrantes took her vehicle.

Traffic Police Director German Marín said it’s “nothing unusual” for officers to give rides to people whose cars have been impounded, though he didn’t know in this case whether Fernández requested a ride.

Regarding the harassment allegations, he said it’s basically Fernández’s word against Barrantes’.

“It could have happened, but I haven’t seen anything that says it did,”Marín said.

Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT) spokesman Omar Segura said the complaint Fernández filed after the incident is being investigated in the Ministry’s police inspection office, which receives complaints. If investigators decide the case has merit, they’ll forward it on to the personnel council, which would forward it to Marín or the courts if there is sufficient evidence.

“We think she made that up to distract attention from what she did,” Segura said.

Barrantes said the young woman was driving under the influence, and points out she also was detained for reckless driving last year – a fact Fernández confirmed.

The traffic cop said the volume of alcohol in Fernández’s blood was more than 0.1%, meaning she was legally drunk (see box). The Tico Times requested a copy of the drunk-driving ticket from Barrantes, but didn’t receive it by press time. Barrantes said several other traffic officials witnessed the Breathalyzer test.

So far this year, an average of two traffic cops are suspended by the Ministry each week for one to 30 days for problems ranging from abuse of authority to receiving illegal payments, according to the daily Al Día.

And so far this year, there have been more than 300 formal complaints filed against traffic cops in MOPT’s police inspection office. There are some 800 traffic police in the country. The vast majority of formal complaints don’t result in punishments (TT, Nov. 24, 2006).

Barrantes said he plans to take legal action against Fernández if he’s cleared in the case.

After the incident, which Fernández described as “traumatic,” a doctor prescribed her medicine for anxiety.

“I’m afraid to leave my house. I can’t be in peace. (Barrantes) has my address, my phone number,” said Fernández, adding she knows it’s her word against his.

Fernández said she doubts her complaint at MOPT will result in a punishment for Barrantes, and says she didn’t bother to file a criminal court case against Barrantes because she knows it’s his word against hers.

“The only thing I can do is speak up so others speak up,” she said.

How Are Drunk Drivers Stopped?

Traffic Police officers are expected to follow set procedures when conducting routine stops to weed out drunk drivers on the roads at checkpoints, which are usually set up on weekends, according to Traffic Police Director German Marín.

Officers randomly stop passing cars and request the driver’s documents and ask them questions. If officers suspect the driver has been drinking, they can ask the driver to take a Breathalyzer test.

The driver doesn’t have to accept the Breathalyzer test, Marín said. If the driver refuses to take the test, he or she must get a ride (taxi or other) to a clinic or laboratory to take a blood test for alcohol within 30 minutes. In the meantime, police can take possession of the vehicle.

In Costa Rica, there are two classifications for drunk driving: pre-drunk, when the blood alcohol level is more than 0.05% but less than 0.1%, and merits a ¢10,000 ($19) traffic ticket, and drunk, which is more than 0.1% and can result in a driver’s car being impounded and license suspended for six months.

If the vehicle is impounded, police are expected to give a ticket to the driver and turn in a copy of the ticket to the traffic infraction department of the Public Works and Transport Ministry (MOPT). The car will be taken to either the Roadway Safety Council (COSEVI) or MOPT headquarters, both in downtown San José.


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