“Just because you have rights doesn’t stop anything from happening to you.” – Don Frew, consultant on ritual crime
GRAPE CREEK, Texas – Nikki Featherston was driving home after stopping at a convenience store when she saw police lights in her rear-view mirror. She didn’t think she was speeding or committing any other traffic violation, but pulled over to the side of the road to await the sheriff’s deputy. Their exchange during the stop highlights the misunderstandings which can take place when Pagans have something they consider ordinary in their possession, but police consider suspicious.Ms. Featherston, a solitary Green Witch, gathered her driver’s license and proof of insurance as the deputy approached her car, and then handed them to the officer. He then asked her to step outside the car.
There had been a break-in in the area and law enforcement officials were stopping cars they deemed suspicious to look for stolen goods. The deputy asked Featherston if he could search her car and since she didn’t think she had anything alarming in it, she agreed.
“And things escalated quickly. I was suddenly in handcuffs and being detained by another police officer while the first one searched my car,” said Featherston.
While police didn’t find stolen goods, they did find a sage smudge stick in her car.
The deputy showed her the smudge stick and asked Featherston what it was. He also asked her why it was wrapped in string, if she smoked it, and if she was high.
“I said no sir, you just light one end and let it smolder. I use it to cleanse, like a priest does in a church. You don’t inhale the smoke, just let it surround you,” said Featherston.
Featherston said the deputy seemed confused and asked her again, “So it gets you high?”
Don Frew, current National Interfaith Officer for Covenant of the Goddess, has been a consultant on ritual crime for local police, the FBI, and the Justice Department since the mid-1980s. In addition to co-authoring a manual for police on Satanism and Paganism, he’s consulted on high-profile cases such as the Nightstalker, the Son of Sam serial murders, and the McMartin preschool child abuse case.
When asked if police are typically trained on the types of items persons in a minority religion may have in their possession, he told The Wild Hunt that this isn’t typically the case, unless there is a known community of that religion in the area. He also said police may treat situations or items they are unfamiliar with as possibly dangerous.
Which may be why Featherston found herself handcuffed and being questioned carefully about her smudge stick.
When deputies starting talking about testing the smudge stick, Featherston asked them if they would untie the string and remove a leaf for testing or cut a section from an end. Featherston had grown the sage herself and the smudge stick was a sacred tool used in practicing her religion. She knew the officers needed to check it, but hoped they would treat the stick with respect.
Instead, Featherston says, they threw it away and let her go with a verbal warning to update her driver’s license to her new address.
Mr. Frew says police may act with less sensitivity than they should, but often, as in this case, it isn’t a big deal. He noted though, “They treated the smug-degree stick inappropriately and some training would be helpful.”
Frew says it appears Featherston handled the stop, and the confusion over the smudge stick, well. He says you should, within reason, calmly and helpfully do whatever police say. “If there’s a problem, deal with it later. You don’t want things to escalate.”
Where it may get a bit more complex is if you have a ritual tool, such as an athame, in your car. Frew says it’s a judgement call if you voluntarily agree to a search of your car or refuse. If you have an athame or a sword in your car and decide to allow police to search your car, tell them before the search begins. “Don’t describe it as a ritual tool, they might jump to the conclusion it’s for sacrifices. Tell them it is a symbolic item used in the practice of your religion,” Frew advises.
His advice to Featherston, or any Pagan who finds themselves in a similar situation, is to write a letter to the police department. He says to let them know you are not filing a complaint, but looking to clear up any confusion or answer any questions thy may have in case they encounter something similar in the future. Frew says police appreciate when you can help them do their job better.
Even better, Frew says, is to be proactive. “If you are a very out Pagan contact your local police before there is an issue. Introduce yourself, give a bit of information about the organizations you belong to, and offer to help with questions as they come up. If you try to do this after the fact, it may be seen as trying to cover up for someone.”