Police strong-arm tactics, in violation of constitutional rights, are challenged
BAKERSFIELD — The ACLU Foundation of Southern California and the ACLU of Northern California have filed suit against Bakersfield Police Department officers, who stopped a car on the pretense that air fresheners were hanging from the rear-view mirror, then proceeded to demand personal information of everyone in the car.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of passenger Robert Mitchell, who exercised his constitutional right to not give his identity or other information to the officers as he was not suspected of a crime. Under the threat of his friend's car being impounded, Mitchell gave his identity but was nonetheless arrested and jailed overnight. He was not charged with any crime.
"All I was doing was expressing my rights, and I went to jail for that," Mitchell said. "Justice is overdue in this community. People are demanding changes to our police department."
Community groups in the Bakersfield area have long protested that police officers overstep their authority and engage in tactics such as stopping people in cars and bicycles under the slightest pretense, then arresting them when they assert their rights. Local group such as Faith in the Valley Kern has been organizing to document and report such unjustified acts of police intimidation and retaliation, as well as excessive force, and demand accountability.
The ACLU SoCal, which plans to open a Bakersfield office in coming months, is partnering with Faith in the Valley Kern and other groups on these efforts.
"The people of Bakersfield deserve government officials that treat them with dignity and respect their constitutional rights," said ACLU SoCal Staff Attorney Adrienna Wong. "We will continue to work with individuals and community organizations to confront police abuse and racial discrimination, including in the courts."
The lawsuit concerning Mitchell was filed January 26 in U.S. District Court against police officers Jeffries, Bishop and Sherman, and the city of Bakersfield.
On March 17, 2017, officers Jeffries and Bishop stopped the car — all the occupants were Black — for the purported purpose of enforcing state vehicle code violations. One of the stated reasons for the stop — that air fresheners were hanging from the rear-view mirror — was not even a valid basis for a stop under current state law. The officers then questioned the driver and passengers, including Mitchell, about a variety of matters, including if they had ever been arrested.
Mitchell refused to give his name or other information, noting that he was not suspected of a crime. The officers violated his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights by continuing to demand the information, threatening to impound the car if he didn't.
Mitchell, not wanting his friend's car to be taken, gave his name but also asked to speak to a supervising officer. When Sgt. Sherman arrived he told Mitchell he had two choices: give the officers further information or go to jail. Mitchell responded that he had already given his name.
At that point he was ordered from the car, handcuffed and arrested. He was taken to Kern County Central Receiving Facility where he was jailed for about 12 hours. No charges were filed against him.
"Mitchell dared to challenge the officers on their unconstitutional demands, and for that he was handcuffed, arrested and spent a night in jail," said ACLU of Northern California Staff Attorney Novella Coleman. "The courts should make it clear that unlawful actions by the Bakersfield Police Department will not be tolerated."
Studies have shown that police stops on flimsy pretexts happen disproportionately to people of color. They reinforce racial disparities in policing and erode the Fourth Amendment's protection of privacy and personal security for all. And in some cases, they have escalated, tragically, into violence.
The lawsuit seeks compensation for violating Mitchell's constitutional rights by seizing and detaining him without probable cause to support an arrest.