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It was ten o’clock on the night of Jan. 15, 1996. Laila M. Maher’s bar exam prep class was over. She left the classroom building to meet Felix C. Morka, a Nigerian national and an attorney with the Social and Economic Rights Action Center of Takoma Park, Md., where Maher was a law intern. The two set off by car for what they believed would be a pleasant visit in New York with Morka’s sister, Theresa. But first, the young Washington lawyers had to navigate the New Jersey Turnpike. At 2:37 a.m. on Jan. 16, they were pulled over by a pair of New Jersey state troopers. “I thought they were going to kill us both,” said Maher, 33, who alleges in a lawsuit that one of the two white officers put a gun to her head while the other assaulted her colleague. “I don’t enjoy talking about this because it’s draining for me. But it’s the only hope of changing society — to keep talking. “The benefit of the doubt that’s given to white people should also be given to us,” said Maher, who was born in Cairo, Egypt, moved with her parents to Kansas City, Mo., when she was two, and is Egyptian-American. “That’s the point. And I’m no militant.” But she is a lawyer. A fellow of the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights Studies, Maher is a 1995 graduate of the University of Cincinnati School of Law. She is employed as a staff attorney for the Robert B. McKay Community Outreach Law Program at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York Fund Inc. For the most part, Maher advocates for homeless New Yorkers on behalf of the City Bar. “I was very upset,” she said of her longest moment — when Trooper Leonard Nerbetski allegedly held a gun to her head. “And I was crying hysterically … “ Among the hundreds of fugitive thoughts racing through her mind was this: She had lost her mother only few years earlier; she had likewise lost her younger brother; and now, how would her father take the news? “Then the lawyer part of me kicked in,” she said. “My whole life has been listening to what happens to other people — fighting for other people. I knew that what happened to me could not be right, and that I would not have a voice if I did not do something right that moment.” In his travels through 25 countries, Morka said nothing had ever happened to him to compare to his first excursion through New Jersey. And his last, he said in a telephone interview from Lagos, Nigeria. MOVEMENTS INTERPRETED “I was driving,” said Morka, 36, a 1995 graduate of Harvard Law School. “At some point, I noticed lights flashing in the mirror, and knew it was the police. So I signaled to pull over. “The police officer walked to my side, and I rolled down the window. He demanded to see my driver’s license. I said, ‘Sure’ while reaching into my left side pocket … “ Apparently, this action spooked Trooper Scott Jiras. “I advised the complainants when troopers make motor vehicle stops and observe furtive movements, it places them on a heightened degree of awareness for their personal safety,” according to an internal report issued in April 1996 by Lieutenant Peter R. Matonis of New Jersey’s Troop “D,” stationed at Cranbury. (The report is part of the court record.) Other furtive movements included Maher’s twisting a BAR/BRI course textbook underfoot while holding her hands under her armpits. “It was cold, and the heater wasn’t working very well,” she said of the car she still owns, a 1991 Mercury Capri coupe. In his report, Lieutenant Matonis declared all of Maher’s and Morka’s allegations — the troopers’ failure to give the lawyers their names or a reason for the pullover, excessive force, brandishing of a weapon and assault — “unsubstantiated.” According to Morka, however, “He [Trooper Jiras] reached in through the window, grabbed my shirt around my collar, and began pulling me out of the car through the window practically. He kept saying, ‘When an officer tells you to do something, you better do it!’ “He kept knocking me against the door, he just went on and on, knocking me back and forth,” Morka said. “Laila was screaming. Just before I was dragged out of the car, I looked across [toward Maher]. He [Trooper Leonard Nerbetski] said, ‘Let me see your hands!’ “Miss Maher was trying to get out. I could see the pistol in his hand that he had drawn on her. I was so scared. I just said, ‘What have I done? What have we done?’ I said, ‘Look, we’re lawyers — ‘ “ On Dec. 12, 1995 — merely a month and four days prior to the New Jersey incident — Morka testified before a congressional subcommittee in Washington on the topic of human rights in Nigeria. Maher also attended that hearing. Maher said she likewise told the troopers that they were lawyers. “I screamed it, as a matter of fact,” she said. During the interrogatory process of her lawsuit, lawyers for the state of New Jersey asked her why she screamed. She told them, “Because I thought it might save me from getting my head blown off.” SPEEDING TICKET Lawyers for Troopers Nerbetski and Jiras objected to interrogatories directed at their defendant clients, mostly on grounds of relevance and the production of reasonably admissible evidence. In a departure from the routine, however, the defense lawyers, from Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Peretti, responded to one of the plaintiffs’ questions by stating, “The terms ‘misconduct,’ ‘police brutality’ and ‘violent act’ are vague and ambiguous as well as argumentative.” The interrogatories are part of the court record. In statements included as part of the police internal investigation, Troopers Jiras and Nerbetski strenuously denied that they had respectively assaulted Morka or drawn a weapon on Maher. They did, however, issue a speeding ticket to Morka. “I was not speeding,” Morka said in the phone interview. “At the time, the last thing I wanted was to have anything to do with New Jersey. I just wrote the check and paid.” The subsequent lawsuit — a civil action filed in the Superior Court of New Jersey for Middlesex County, seeking unspecified damages for wrongful arrest, assault and humiliation — seeks class action status. Neil Mullin, of the Montclair, N.J., firm Smith Mullin, who represents the plaintiffs, said the Superior Court judge had denied class action. He has appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, where the case is pending. Meanwhile, said Mullin, “We’re in settlement talks with the state of New Jersey.” Michael Cole, of the Teaneck, N.J., firm Decotiis, Fitzpatrick, Gluck, Hayden & Cole, is lead attorney for the defendants: the state of New Jersey, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the New Jersey Division of State Police, and Troopers Jiras and Nerbetski. Cole referred comment to a press spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office. Three calls to the spokesman were not returned. RACIAL PROFILING ALLEGED Late last year, then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman held a press conference, owning up to her state’s practice of racial profiling. She released documents showing that New Jersey law enforcement officials had known for more than a decade that people with dark skin had been singled out for stops on the turnpike. “Seven out of every 10 minority drivers [whose cars were searched] … there was nothing there,” said New Jersey Attorney General John Farmer, according to a New York Times account. “From a social policy point of view, that’s a disaster.” Whitman, now Secretary of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pledged to discontinue racial profiling in her state. To aid Whitman’s cause, there is the matter of the lawsuit — along with Maher’s decision to speak out. Last month, for instance, she testified before a New Jersey State Senate committee in Trenton. She also went to New Brunswick, N.J., on May 3 to talk about her experience at an event sponsored by the New Jersey Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union entitled “Conversations on Racial Profiling.” “My skin color speaks loudly,” she said. “Call me crazy, but I never knew that before. I know now that some people will make major judgments about me that could cause me to lose my life.” “I am still to this day very scared of police officers,” she said. “People may say that’s irrational — whatever. But my whole sense of security has fallen apart.”

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