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Acquitted on appeal: Carnita Matthews — or is it? — leaves court in Sydney, shielded by her supporters (Fairfax) 

On June 7 last year, a little after 6pm, a Muslim woman named Carnita Matthews, dressed in a full burqa with facial niqab, was driving through the western suburbs of Sydney when a highway patrolman pulled her over for a random breath test. The 15-minute encounter that followed, which was recorded by a camera on the cop-car's dashboard, would prove to be one of the most resonant traffic stops in Australian history. Portions of the video have played repeatedly on the nightly news. Two court cases have ensued. Scrums of pious men have jostled camera crews on city streets. And now, as a direct consequence of the whole affair, the New South Wales government is about to introduce laws empowering police to order the temporary removal of facial coverings for purposes of identification. This legislation has been somewhat lazily compared to the burqa ban in France, although it has far more limited aims than the French measure. Still, the maximum penalties for non-compliance will be a lot tougher: a year's jail or a $5,500 (£3,500) fine, compared with the 150-euro (£132) wrist-slap applicable in France.  

The Matthews traffic stop, which can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, began routinely enough. The policeman, Constable Paul Fogarty, took the standard look at Ms Matthews's photo licence. He then asked her to lift her veil for purposes of comparison. She did so, but dropped it before Fogarty could get a proper look at her face. He asked her to lift the veil again, and she did. Satisfied, Fogarty administered the breath test, which she passed.  

Now Fogarty moved to another matter. Ms Matthews, as the holder of a provisional licence, was obliged to display P-plates at both ends of her car. The one on the back was partly obscured: Matthews had wedged it behind her number plate to keep it in place, as many people do. Fogarty announced he was imposing a fine of $197. 

This was a legitimate ruling — Fogarty photographed the P-plate for the record — but it was unquestionably a bit pedantic. Matthews lost her temper. "I see what you're doing now," she said. "You're clearly now racist." "Sorry?" said Fogarty, a little stunned by the sudden playing of the card. Matthews, getting out of the car to inspect the offending P-plate, said: "You looked at me, and you see me with the niqab on, and you couldn't handle it ... You are racist. All cops are racist." She went on in this vein for another minute or two, with much gesticulation and finger-wagging. This part of the video has become a staple of the news coverage. Lately Ms Matthews has been on TV more often than both Minogue sisters combined, although nobody knows what she looks like. 

Matthews, it should be said, wasn't wrong to feel aggrieved about the fine. Anyone copping such a nitpicking ticket would feel thoroughly cheesed off. But it should also be said that police pedantry is a long-established tradition of the Australian road: it can be outrageous, but it falls on the robed and the unrobed alike. When Fogarty tells Matthews, on the video, that he doesn't "appreciate" being called a racist, he sounds as if he means it. Matthews informs him she'll be taking the matter to court. Fogarty replies, prophetically, that she will be wasting the court's time.

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