Rookie Woodbury police officer Caitlin Jaworksi approached the green Honda Accord and knew something was wrong besides the seat belt violation.
The routine traffic stop on Feb. 8 led to Jaworski's first arrest in her career — a felony burglary bust involving three people, one of whom was being tracked by local FBI agents, and recovery of a cache of stolen loot.
"It's just about trusting your instinct," Jaworski said. "If things don't feel right, they probably aren't."
Jaworski and her field training officer, Jason Antrim, had been parked at Colby Lake Park "practicing stops," Jaworski said, when they pulled over the car on Woodbury Drive just south of Valley Creek Road.
The pair noticed a slew of warning signs: The driver had a suspended license, a widescreen TV lay across the lap of a female passenger in the backseat, and all three people in the car were being uncooperative.
"The TV was almost smothering her," Antrim said. "And it was kind of strange: She ... had her head down, pretending to sleep."
Jaworski pointed out two laptops to Antrim and the pair decided to reconvene at their squad car.
Antrim, a Woodbury police officer for three years, knew the car and knew that none of the passengers had a valid driver's license. The driver, Xue Her, had a history of not paying fines and failure to appear in court.
Antrim's role as field training officer is to have rookies like Jaworksi shadow him. But Jaworski took the lead in searching Her, finding an ecstasy pill, $300 in cash and a TV remote.
"I wanted to get my first arrest under my belt. That's why I approached him," Jaworski said. "I was a little bit nervous, but at the same time I was doing what I'm trained to do."
Jaworski did more than execute the handcuffing — she knew finding a controlled substance gave the officers probable cause to search the vehicle. Antrim said Jaworski had a solid background in case law, helping extend the scope of their search.
Additional officers, including detectives from Ramsey County, arrived and helped search the car. One detective told Antrim and Jaworski that the driver was on federal probation.
"One of the detectives said that a very high number of offenses he investigates had been committed by these three," Antrim said. "They were well known to law enforcement."
Her and his passengers, Cathy Moua, 27, and Chou Yang, 22, were all charged with second-degree burglary.
Cottage Grove police officers, responding to a residential burglary, overheard the descriptions of the electronics and informed Woodbury officials they sounded like the items missing from the home where they were investigating.
Gail Griffith, Cottage Grove's police information officer, said the traffic stop occurred on the city lines between Woodbury and Cottage Grove and the bust would not have been possible without communication between the departments.
"I've been here for 24 years, and something this neat and clean doesn't happen that often," Griffith said. "But it does happen."
Antrim said rookie officers like Jaworski are often put on day shifts during their first phase of training so they can take as many calls as possible — no matter how trivial.
"These criminals travel at all hours of the day," Antrim said. "But it was very surprising, obviously, to come across this situation in the day shift, because it is very rare."
Jaworski will change to the night shift as part of her training before finishing in May. She'll patrol on her own once the four-month field training is complete.
"What's exciting about this job is you never know what's going to happen," Jaworski said. "Which can be kind of scary and exciting at the same time."
Andrew Krammer is a University of Minnesota student journalist on assignment for the Star Tribune.