Ontario woman arrested, jailed in U.S. for driving with a Canadian licence
'It was the most horrendous incident of my life,' says 27-year-old grad student
An Ontario woman is looking for an apology from the Georgia police officer who arrested, handcuffed and charged her because she was driving with a Canadian licence.
"It was the most horrendous incident of my life," said Emily Nield. "It was mortifying. I was terrified the entire time."
About a month ago, the 27-year-old was driving through Georgia to Tennessee, where she had just completed a master's degree in geology. Nield's route took her along the I-75, which is often used by Canadians making the trek to and from Florida.
That's where she was pulled over for speeding, and the officer asked to see her licence. Nield handed over her Ontario driver's licence, but wasn't prepared for the officer's reaction.
"She kept saying, 'No, Canadian licences are not accepted,'" said Nield. "I was flabbergasted. I just kept saying this can't be right — a Canadian licence is always valid."
Nield told CBC Toronto she was then asked to prove she was Canadian and although she had copies of her passport, Nexus card, and birth certificate on her phone, the officer wanted to see an original hard copy.
I was flabbergasted. I just kept saying this can't be right — a Canadian licence is always valid.- Emily Nield
"When I failed to produce it, she reached through the window of my car and she put handcuffs on me," said Nield.
"She told me that I have just been arrested for driving without a licence and that I needed to go to jail."
In the back of the officer's cruiser Nield managed to take a video on her cellphone and send it to friends on SnapChat.
"I'm in cuffs. Help me! I don't want to go to jail," she says in the video as she breaks down in tears.
'I never committed a crime'
At the police station Nield was charged with driving without a licence and speeding, for doing 87 m.p.h. in a 70 m.p.h. zone.
Police took her mugshot and fingerprinted her.
"They kept saying 'You're now in the system. Any crime that's going to be committed, your fingerprints are going to be searched,'" said Nield. "I never committed a crime."
One of her friends was able to determine her location in Adel, through a feature on SnapChat, and called the sheriff's office in Cook County, Ga.
Nield said she was permitted to speak to her friend, but her requests to speak to the Canadian Consulate or her parents went unanswered.
Paid $880 to get out of jail
She said police told her she would remain in jail until her court appearance on June 12, unless she paid an $880 US bond in cash, which she didn't have.
That's something the Cook County Sheriff's Office denies.
"That is not correct," it said in a statement late Monday. "Georgia law states that any individual who is arrested on a non-warrant is entitled to a first appearance hearing to be advised of their rights and bond within 48 hours of arrest."
Interstate 75 brings in nearly a million travellers through the county each month, the statement says, and law enforcement regularly comes across cases of identity theft and other related crimes. "That is why we follow Georgia [Department of Driver Services] guidelines and request a passport or visa to verify their identity," Capt. Brent Exum said in the statement.
Eventually Nield was allowed to use her debit card and post her own bail. She said she also had to pay $200 to remove her car from the impound.
She stayed in the States while trying to get the charges dismissed and the arrest expunged, with the help of a friend's father, who is a lawyer in Virginia, and the Canadian Consulate.
"I just kept thinking this would ruin me," Nield told CBC Toronto. "Any job application you have to check a box. Are you a criminal? Have you ever been convicted or arrested for anything?"
According to the Georgia Department of Driver Services website, "non-U.S. citizens holding a valid foreign driver's licence are allowed to drive in the state of Georgia."
The website goes on to explain "in the case of a driver licence issued by the driver's licensing authority of a foreign country, a law officer may consult a person's passport or visa to verify the validity of such licence, if available."
Three days after Nield's arrest, Matthew Bennett, the Cook County probate court solicitor, agreed the charges should be dismissed and the judge signed off on it.
"I just felt like it probably became a bigger deal than it should have been considering that she was here studying — no prior trouble," said Bennett.
He said the court, in consultation with Nield's attorney, is taking measures to erase her arrest record. As of last week, he estimated it could take another couple of weeks to do so.
Make sure that you have your passport or supporting documents along with your driver's licence. - Matthew Bennett, Cook County Probate Court solicitor
In Monday's statement, Bennett said "the confusion that arose in this case was the fact Ms. Nield stated she lived in Tennessee."
Nield maintains the officer asked if she ever lived in the U.S. and she said yes, she had for university.
Non-permanent residents in the U.S., Bennett explained, are allowed to obtain a Tennessee driver's licence or ID card that expires when their visa does.
In the meantime, he has some advice for Canadian drivers.
"Make sure that you have your passport or supporting documents along with your driver's licence," said Bennett. "I know I would if I was in a foreign country."
Know the law
Nield said she had copies of those on her phone, but doesn't believe it would have made a difference if she had carried the originals, because the officer believed a Canadian driver's licence was invalid.
"If you're a police officer you should know your laws, especially the I-75 people going north," said Nield. "There are so many snowbirds, and Canadians drive to Florida all the time for vacation."
After finding out her arrest would be cleared from the system, Nield said she "cried with joy," and last week she flew back to Canada.
Right now Nield is at home with her parents in Kleinburg, Ont., but she said she will still have to make another trip back to the U.S. to pick up her vehicle. She also says she's "excited" to receive her bail money refund, which has been put in the mail.
In the meantime, she wants the Cook County Sheriff's Office in Georgia to be held accountable, so it doesn't happen again.
"At least with the officer who arrested me, I would love to see a formal reprimand," said Nield. "That way she can learn that this is not right — an apology is what I would love the most."
The sheriff's office statement quotes the probate court judge in response.
"Ms. Nield was afforded the same rights as an American citizen and she had the opportunity to have the facts of her case heard in a court of law," said Judge Chase Daughtrey. "In this case, the justice system worked and for that everyone should be thankful."