Should my parents pursue this matter of mistreatment by police?
March 30, 2014 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Should my parents pursue this matter of civil rights, social justice, and mistreatment by police?

In looking over some other questions about legal matters, I see the prevailing attitude from the hive mind is "get a lawyer." So, please bear in mind that my question is not about the legal matter as much as it's about assessing the police/courts/legal culture.

My parents are highly educated, progressive people who are lifelong political activists. My father, a physicist, was driving home from work one evening when he was stopped by a sherrif's deputy for "crossing the fog line." (That's a solid white line at the right side of the road). From our research online, we find that this is not a traffic offense in our state.

My father used no profanity, made no threatening gestures toward the officer, but did question why he had been stopped for such a minor matter in which no law had been broken. He did get out of his car.

The next thing he knew, the officer had called for backup, and very quickly three other men arrived. They slapped handcuffs on my father and arrested him. The charges are "obstruction" and "resisting arrest." They took him to jail, where four jailers removed his glasses and literally threw him down onto the floor of a cell. My father is 67 years old. The four large men then got on top of him and pressed him down.

He was kept in the cell from 7 p.m. till about 1:30 a.m. in the morning, not allowed to make any phone calls. My mother was at home with my profoundly autistic brother, increasingly worried at his absence, unable to reach him by phone. At midnight she took my brother and went searching for my father, driving to his workplace and finding his car not there, then retracing the route he takes from work, checking ditches along the way to look for accidents.

At 1:15 a.m. she got a call from the police, who asked her to "verify my father's information," so that he could be released on his own recognizance. She did, and my father was released then, taking a cab home since his car had been impounded.

While in jail, my father became aware of many Hispanic prisoners who were also being abused, as he had been.

In addition to my parents' extremely angry reaction about my father's treatment, my parents are very concerned about minority people, or any person without resources, in that situation.

Our question is: We have been aware that in most "traffic cases" in our area, the judge always believes the police officers and does not even allow citizens to state their views of what happened. We are wondering if the same would be true of our charges of the unwarranted and brutal treatment my father received from the arresting officer(s), and especially from the four jailers.

My parents are wondering if pursuing this matter would be worth the time, energy, and financial resources it would demand. In their decades of political activism, they have learned to "choose your battles." What are the chances of a fair and just outcome? Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts on this matter.
posted by 1270AEH to Law & Government (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Is your father white? I don't see his treatment as a civil rights issue unless he is a member of a minority/ discriminated against group.

This is appalling treatment. I would contact the ACLU, and look for other organizations who might be able to support him in contacting the police commission to protest this treatment, and possible contacting the media. In some areas, the police use video cameras, and if there's video, going public might be really effective. I would encourage your father to take action, because that's the only way things ever change.
posted by theora55 at 8:20 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, my father is white.
posted by 1270AEH at 8:22 AM on March 30, 2014

Are you in the U.S.? It would be helpful if you'd post what state you're in, if you're in the U.S.

I would start by going to the local media. You might start by calling the local Sheriff to complain of his treatment (the way to handle the interaction is highly polite, but a bit incredulous and certain that he would never condone something like this happening. If s/he blows you off, go straight to the media. ACLU is a good suggestion.

Document ANYTHING related to his treatment. Were there bruises from the handcuffs or being pushed down on the ground? Take photos and go to a doctor to have them checked out, etc.

Sorry this happened to your father.
posted by arnicae at 8:25 AM on March 30, 2014

I see the prevailing attitude from the hive mind is "get a lawyer." So, please bear in mind that my question is not about the legal matter as much as it's about assessing the police/courts/legal culture.

There is a difference between advice to see a wise lawyer for a brief consultation in order to assess your options, and advice to plunk down a huge retainer to hire the most vicious lawyer you can find to sue, Sue, SUE!

If I were to say the former, I hope you would not hear the latter.

I doubt strangers on the internet will be able to assess the police/courts/legal culture in your area better than a local lawyer who deals with them day in and day out.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:44 AM on March 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

What kind of outcome do they want?
posted by J. Wilson at 8:50 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do you have a really great investigative journalist in your area? Your father's story could be the hook, the meat of it could be an investigation of what happens to less privileged victims of this routine practice.
posted by blue suede stockings at 9:00 AM on March 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

He did get out of his car.

I am sorry this happened to your father and your family. I believe he was treated poorly and that the police overstepped. I would pursue this.

At the same time, I would have the events recounted to someone more impartial than yourself (or AskMe, where you can have more of a back and forth discussion) to get an idea of what the other side of this argument might look like so that you can be prepared for whatever "pursing this" might entail. Because as soon as I saw "He did get out of his car" I was wondering if your father has been pulled over before and knows the general drill to stay in his car? And what else was going on?

Cops are weird and jumpy and tend to behave less crappily when everyone goes through the same dumb formalities. This is, again, not saying that what they did was warranted or okay but saying that I think it's worth talking this out with someone who can look at this from both sides and give you a better idea of what outcomes are likely. The more clear-cut your case is, the better outcomes are likely, it's worth getting a second opinion from someone who is knowledgeable about whether this is as clear cut to them as it is to you.

So I'd consider

- consulting a lawyer
- consulting the local media, copwatch or other concerned citizen group
- working your way up the chain of command at the police department and seeing if there is an omsbudsman

I think making sure the police understand that they need to be accountable for their crappy behavior is very very important. I can also understand why your parents might not want to pursue this but I think it's at least worth some further examination.
posted by jessamyn at 9:01 AM on March 30, 2014 [16 favorites]

IANAL, but I'd think the first thing to do is file a "preservation of evidence" demand letter so that it is on the record, ask for all audio and video recordings, arrest reports, staffing schedule etc.
Do you have a hundred grand or so to spend on this? Then sure, it should be easy to get a lawyer.
Is the judge an elected position? or the sheriff ? The best way to fight this sort of thing may be if either he runs for office himself, or backs someone dedicated to fighting this sort of abuse.
Publicity-wise it could be the difference between an single newspaper story and the continuing light shone by an ongoing election campaign.
Of course, there could be a LOT more traffic stops in their future if they pursue this.
posted by Sophont at 9:12 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

what the other commenters said. i'm sorry this happened. it will be a steep climb to justice.

your question didn't disclose whether they have actually filed the charges they arrested him on. if so, he needs the best criminal defense lawyer in town to take it to a jury trial. there'll be time enough to consider a suit for false arrest after he wins the case against him. there's more i could tell you, but i'll defer to the best criminal defense lawyer in town.
posted by bruce at 9:12 AM on March 30, 2014

IAAL, but IANYL or Your Parents' Lawyer.

But they should consult a lawyer, one who specializes in police misconduct and civil rights suits. Many offer free consultations, and they should definitely take advantage.

If your father is facing criminal charges, the same lawyer may take both cases. One or the other should immediately request all dashcam and audio associated with the traffic stop to make sure it doesn't get "lost," as well as audio and video from the booking desk *and* the cellblock.

Only your parents can decide if it's going to be worth the time, energy and emotion that goes into a suit like this. Sorry this happened to them and best of luck.
posted by mibo at 9:14 AM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The state is Nevada.
posted by 1270AEH at 9:26 AM on March 30, 2014

Response by poster: The sheriff is not seeking another term. His term expires in a couple of months.
posted by 1270AEH at 9:27 AM on March 30, 2014

Response by poster: We are also wondering if we should talk to our U.S. Senator; my parents are longtime volunteers in his campaigns and he has intervened in other matters in social justice issues with which they were concerned.
posted by 1270AEH at 9:29 AM on March 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Crossing the fog line is not a crime, but it is enough to create reasonable suspicion (link) that allows an officer to legally stop someone in order to investigate further. This deputy was probably looking for drunk drivers and wanted to do things like ask the driver where they were coming from and going to, observe their eyes, smell their breath, etc.

Second, please please please do not ever get out of the car unless the officer instructs you to. Every single officer out there has seen the video of the Dinkheller killing, the Sgt. Chesnut shooting, the recent Oregon state trooper that was killed, etc.

I'm not saying the deputy was right or wrong, I have no idea what the facts of the situation are and wouldn't pass judgment even if I did. What people aren't aware of is the fact that when people start doing things like arguing and getting out of their car at a traffic stop, that officer is thinking "is this person getting ready to kill me?"

It's also worth remembering that by the side of the road is not the right place to discuss what happened. If you think the officer is wrong, talk about it with the hearing officer or judge later, and you don't want to talk to the police in any event. Know what documentation you're required to provide, provide that upon request, and otherwise keep your mouth shut. The police don't need to mirandize you prior to arrest, and everything you say and do can and will be used against you in a court of law. If an officer is determined to arrest you on a given occasion, she or he is going to do so - don't talk or argue or try to explain yourself, just keep your hands visible to the officer and comply with commands. Make the officer articulate why they did what they did, don't give them reasons.

Finally, it is literally impossible for anyone to actually answer the question as you've asked it here. We do not have the information. You need to find an attorney to review the dashcam footage and the deputy's official report - how much of a case you might have varies wildly based on how well that report was written and how well it matches with the video.

Everything I've said here is to try to help you understand what happened.
posted by kavasa at 9:32 AM on March 30, 2014 [26 favorites]

Response by poster: Jessamyn, yes, like most people who have been driving for over four decades, my father has been pulled over by the police, for matters like a burned out taillight, and for a speeding ticket. He has never been requested to remain in the car by an officer.
posted by 1270AEH at 9:37 AM on March 30, 2014

Response by poster: @kavasa: To our knowledge, in our traffic courts here, a citizen can only enter a plea. He cannot describe his version of events.
posted by 1270AEH at 9:40 AM on March 30, 2014

Mod note: Hey there, 1270AEH, moderator here. Just letting you know, it's not really customary here to reply to each thing that's said. At this point, you've laid out the facts, and you can sit back, read the answers, and decide which ones you find useful, and just ignore ones that don't seem useful. Thanks.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:45 AM on March 30, 2014

Every driver education book/site/etc that I have seen in recent history has said something along the lines of "Do not exit the vehicle unless explicitly told to by the officer." That is no excuse for the ensuing treatment, which was reprehensible, just a data point.
posted by jferg at 10:04 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

Feel free to ignore this, but be really sure you want to know the truth about what happened before you explore this further. My father many years ago returned from a trip to another state with tales of police brutality that led to a broken hand. Horrified at the story and at his insistence that he had been targeted because he was a visitor for work to a small country town, and his reluctance to persue it because there was "no point as no one would believe him against the police.: A few phone calls to the restaurant he was in and it turns out my father was drunken disturbing the peace, and punched a wall when asked by the cops to leave.

I am not saying that your father did anything like this, but be really sure you want to know what really happened, and accept the fact that while cops can be dickheads and there is absolutely no excuse for what they did, but unless they are completely out of control it makes no sense to arrest and drag to a holding cell then pile four guys onto a nice gentle old man who is doing everything they say in a nice non belligerent manner at a traffic stop.

Having said that, I'd suggest going to see a lawyer. A short consultation for advice about what to expect when going for the ticket and what you can do if anything. I would be interested to know if the police car had a dash cam and seeing if the lawyer could get hold of the tape too, you should at least get a hold of the police report. Also I'd really want to know why your father got out of the car, it's drilled into you so well even I knew you didn't do that in the US before I moved here.
posted by wwax at 10:36 AM on March 30, 2014 [6 favorites]

From what you described, you need to be careful conflating two separate incidents: your father getting arrested and your father's treatment once he was in jail.

You won't get very far (nor should you, really) with complaining about the former. Your father argued with the cop and got out of the vehicle. That is enough justification for a request for backup. He was over the fog line which can be an indication of intoxication and he then proceeded to act in what the cop could reasonably interpret as a potentially threatening manner.

As for his treatment in jail, absolutely. That is dreadful. Focus your complaint and your activism on what happened after he was arrested: not why, not how, and do not argue about the merits of the traffic stop. They are completely irrelevant and will only serve to highlight the fact that your father did, in fact, do something "wrong".
posted by lydhre at 10:41 AM on March 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

It is sort of naive to try to avoid framing this as a legal issue, what you are complaining of appears to be that the police unlawfully stopped your father, violated his right in the traffic stop and used excessive force at the roadside and after he was arrested. Those are all legal issues.

I am a lawyer and familiar with this type of situation. I am not your lawyer and do not practice in Nevada. Lydhre is correct that traveling over the fog line is a classic indicator of impaired driving and a frequent reason for traffic stops after dark. Officers are looking for drunk drivers, they look for weaving, a.k.a. lane travel violations, as an indicator. Moreover, it is almost certain that traveling outside the lane lines is a traffic violation, but even if it isn't, it is generally reasonable suspicion of DUI and thereby sufficient justification for a traffic stop.

As for whether your father's conduct amounted to obstruction or resisting, not a single person here can answer that for you. You need to present a lawyer with the police reports and your father's side of what happened. As discussed above, officers have wide discretion in traffic stops because they are inherently dangerous situations. If a subject verbally argues with an officer, it is completely normal for backup to be requested.

It does sounds like your father's treatment at the jail was terrible. There are different ways you can address this. First, I say talk to a lawyer. If you are not going to do that, lodge a complaint with the police department or the civilian complaint board, if there is one. Officers can be administratively disciplined for excessive use of force. The nuclear options are to involve the media or sue for police brutality.

I'll echo the above and say that to preserve your options you should request all video or dispatch records for the involved officers and photograph any injuries. If he truly was thrown down in the jail, I would personally make the administrative complaint and request records.
posted by emmatrotsky at 11:01 AM on March 30, 2014 [2 favorites]

unwarranted and brutal treatment

I'm sorry your father went through this, but I'm struggling to see how his experience would be described as "unwarranted and brutal treatment."

Weaving across the road to the point where you cross the fog line creates reasonable suspicion for an officer to pull you over to check and see if you're driving while intoxicated. You argue that he shouldn't be pulled over because no law was broken, but the point of pulling him over is to determine if a law is broken. During the traffic stop (which, it is worth noting, is one of the scenarios where a police officer is most likely to be killed) your father is at least mildly argumentative with the officer and then made the incredibly stupid decision to get out of his car and make a move toward the officer.

(While you commented that, "He has never been requested to remain in the car by an officer," this is pretty basic drivers education stuff. In fact, you should read page 37 of the Nevada Driver's Handbook which makes it clear that you will likely get pulled over for failure to drive within marked lanes, and that if you get pulled over, stay inside your car unless instructed to get out by the officer.)

The officer feels threatened enough to call for backup, and your father is arrested. So far, I haven't seen the police do anything wrong. In fact, everything that's happened to your father has been entirely warranted based on his behavior.

At this point, "four jailers removed his glasses." Yup. They probably also had him empty his pockets, and take off his shoe laces and belt. The point is to remove anything that can be used to harm himself or others. This is normal, and I would argue, fairly reasonable.

Now, I'm struggling with what you mean by, "four large men then got on top of him and pressed him down." For how long? Did they sit on him the entire five hours he was in jail, or did they just hold him down while they removed his handcuffs? Was he being argumentative/difficult with the jailers?

You note that he was "not allowed to make any phone calls." Despite what you see on Law & Order, a phone call isn't always a right. Was your father booked, or just held? as Findlaw notes, "Generally, you are not entitled to make a telephone call until after you have been booked," and only to secure legal representation (or call someone who can do so for you).

Ultimately, your father is kept in jail for a few hours before being released on his own recognizance. That seems pretty reasonable to me, especially given the circumstances that got him into the jail in the first place.

By all means, get a lawyer and talk this through with them. Get the information and materials from the police, and statements from people involved. If laws were broken by the police, find a path to address them. But I think you need to come to terms with the fact that your father caused a good bit of this mess himself.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 11:03 AM on March 30, 2014 [10 favorites]

Your parents should hire a criminal defense attorney and fight this. They may have to be willing to fund an appeal, which is expensive, but potentially worth doing, especially if they're trying to make a point.

Independent of that, they should consult an attorney about bringing a civil suit against the arresting officer and the department both for standard personal injury torts and violation of civil rights.

You should be prepared for the possibility that there is an entirely different version of events out there, for which there may be substantial evidence. Everybody thinks they got a raw deal. Many people actually do, but many also just wind up with a slightly harsher version of whatever they had coming to them.
posted by valkyryn at 11:45 AM on March 30, 2014

Personal anecdote: two years ago Mr. Adams and I were pulled over by an Illinois state trooper while we were driving home from a three week long road trip (Michigan to Reno, and back via states that allowed us to visit the Grand Canyon and Route 66 and such). The trooper's reason for pulling us over was "driving close to the fog line." Not crossing it or anything, but driving close to it. Having watched all 20-plus seasons of COPS, Mr. Adams and I remained in our seats with our hands in plain sight. The trooper never asked to see our drivers' licenses or proof of insurance (as is standard procedure, we thought) but instead asked to see the rental agreement (he'd apparently run our license plate and had determined that it was a rental car). I (I was in the passenger seat, and he was on my side of the car) told him "It's in the glove box, I have to get it from there," and he just nodded. I gave it to him and then he asked us "What city do you live in?" and I replied, "Birmingham. A northern suburb of Detroit." He then handed the rental contract back to me and asked some general questions about where we'd been and where we were headed, and that was that. I was irate for the next 50 miles or so - "We're living in a police state! What right did he have to stop us?!" (I did some online research after we returned home and determined that *perhaps* we'd been stopped because that stretch of freeway was a common drug trafficking pipeline, and our rental car had Colorado plates...and the reason the trooper never bothered to ask for ID was because pudgy, pasty-white, middle-aged Mr. Adams and I didn't fit their "profile" of drug runners.)

Anyway, if you or your parents can afford the legal means necessary, I would definitely hire a lawyer and demand the police dashcam footage as well as the video footage of your father's treatment in jail (there are surveillance cameras everywhere - everything that happened to him should have been recorded). I would not focus on the similarly mistreated Latinos he met during his incarceration and instead focus on the way he was treated, for no apparent legal infraction. If you don't choose to pursue the matter further legally after you get the dashcam and jail footage , keep in mind that these are the kind of videos that go viral on YouTube and tend to bring public awareness to a problem with local law enforcement.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:10 PM on March 30, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Bit of an outside-the-box thought here, but I'm wondering if maybe it would be a good thing to get into activism on behalf of people involved in the criminal justice system generally? Your parents' concern regarding folks who are caught up in it without resources is, from what I can see, entirely on point. Piper Kerman has a lot to say about this, and it's one of the major themes of Orange is the New Black (more so the book than the TV show).

Addressing the overall issue of how people are treated while being detained might go farther by getting together with folks who know the terrain and have more angles to work than just one person who wants to make a case about one incident -- although of course, there's nothing to say that they can't choose to pursue that incident as well.
posted by sparktinker at 1:47 PM on March 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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