A police officer sees a young African-American male driving a car in Menlo Park at 1:40 a.m., and the passengers in this car are a young African-American male and young Mexican-American male. The car is obeying all traffic rules, but allegedly has an illegally tinted window. So you know what's going to happen. The officer turns on his lights and makes a u-turn to stop the car. Because the subjective intent of a stop doesn't matter if you have an objective basis for it.
At which point the driver of the car sees this, and immediately makes a right turn at the next stop light and then an immediate left turn into an unlit parking lot behind a walk-up burger stand, turning off his headlights for good measure. In short, he's trying to hide.
Which of course will not work, and will just hack off the officer. As indeed it does. The officer jams into the parking lot at high speed, shines his spotlight on the car, approaches it with his hand on his gun, and orders the occupants of the car to put their hands up and outside the car's window. He gets the driver's license and registration, calls in the license plate number of the car, and orders backup, which arrives within 90 seconds. Over the next several minutes, numerous officers -- "essentially the entire Menlo Park Police watch" -- arrives on the scene.
Does everyone attempt to calm things down? No. Of course not. The driver starts screaming that the officer pulled him over purely based on his race. One the passengers keeps yapping on his cell phone. The officers scream at the passenger to get off the phone. The officers order the driver out of the vehicle, slam him into the hood of the car, and 'cuff him. You can probably figure out the attitude of the officers already, but lest there be any doubt, they record the thing on a tape recorder, and after partially Mirandizing the three occupants, you hear him say:
"[Officer Estrada]: Here’s the deal, ok? This is the way I do business, ok. If you would have pulled over and not tried to ditch me [inaudible], ok, then you and I would have been having a more decent conversation, ok. But you tried to ditch me, I get behind you, and then you start shooting off your mouth to me, and then your friends are joining along. I got to make a decision here.
[Officer Estrada]: Let me finish.
[Plaintiff]: Yeah, I, that’s why I [inaudible] I thought you was done sir.
[Officer Estrada]: Don’t interrupt. I need to make, I need to make a decision here. I’m going to decide whether I’m going to let three little punks walk all over me, and the reason I call you punks is you’re acting that way. I[‘m] gonna have to decide whether I’m going to let three little punks walk all over me or whether or not to sit on you real fast and let you know that I’m the one in charge here, not you, ok. You understand me? Now, let me explain something else to you too. You may be able to get away with smarting off to some of the younger cops, you’re not going to do that with me and I’ll explain to you why, ok. Because, since I had no desire to become sergeant, I really don’t give a rat’s ass who I piss off. I don’t care about complaints.
[Plaintiff]: I know you don’t care I can see that.
[Officer Estrada]: Ok, so, so, so, it’s a lot of things in that Penal Code that I could arrest you right now for if I wanted to, so if I was you, I would just keep your mouth shut, don’t try to, don’t try to get smart with me, and we might have a better evening, you understand me? Do you understand me?"
Which, again, I'm confident happens all the time. Only this time, it's recorded. So the officer's can't testify that none of this happened, that they were courteous and merely concerned with officer safety, etc.
The truth of the matter is that the officers are hacked off. They feel disrespected, and they're going to make the driver and passengers pay for that with a little "street justice". No charges. But we will slam you up on the car, handcuff you for a half hour, and make you sit on the curb for the better part of an hour. Until you show the officers the respect they feel they're due, you're going to get the treatment.
Which is not to say that the driver acted appropriately. He didn't. Indeed, I think one of the officers (the Sargeant) is exactly right when he tells the driver -- again, on the recording -- that he's was "just being damn right ignorant" by pulling over into a dark alley, saying: "“I mean stop, stop on the road because if this officer is not sure what’s going on and you do something stupid once he comes up on you, it’s very easy to get shot, you know, his safety is in jeopardy. Really, especially, you know, doing the whole routine back here.” That's totally true.
Though two wrongs don't make a right. Or at least that's what my mother repeatedly told me as a child.
Anyway, as you probably figured out, everyone gets released, then the plaintiff sues, then there's a qualified immunity motion, and then there's an appeal, which the Ninth Circuit largely decides in plaintiff's favor.
What's most interesting to me is that the dynamic of this case probably happens all the time. But rarely is recorded. And hence rarely results in a lawsuit, much less in a decision in favor of the plaintiff.
Which is not to say that plaintiff will necessarily prevail at trial. Though he might. It depends on which one of the parties the jury likes least. In a situation in which both sides, in my view, did not display their most favorable personality traits.
So a story in Menlo Park that's probably replayed daily throughout the United States. Except this time is on tape. And accordingly offers a demonstrable insight into things that we might suspect, but rarely actually see, in a darkened alley at 1:40 a.m.