Police Hot Stop: It Could Happen to You*
By David Beck-Brown
I was enjoying a quiet lunch on June 4, 2009 with a disabled teacher of the deaf, Sharon Bair. It was a difficult time for Sharon as she was in the process of losing her home after being laid off from her job. Her husband, my co-worker at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility (RJD), had died from a stress-related heart attack two years prior. I was her witness when Sharon discussed legal matters. Her Real Estate attorney had cancelled her appointment that day so we took a lunch break in Little Italy. While walking, we noticed a discarded object leaning against a planter box. The piece of flat yellow metal was not roped off.
Sharon knew I collected found objects from the streets for my art installations. Inner city residences often place discarded objects on sidewalks for others to utilize. Sharon asked me if I wanted the yellow thing, to which I replied, "Of course." While I left to get my car, Sharon stood by the object. Together we picked it up and placed it in the hatchback of my compact hybrid Honda. At the time I was on temporary disability, recovering from arm surgery, a torn ligament and a broken leg, which required me to walk with a medically prescribed, aluminum cane. The latter two injuries occurred on the grounds of RJD.
While driving away, I became aware of a man driving recklessly behind me. After stopping at the curb to let him pass, the man sped up, pulled over in front of me and backed his pick-up truck into my car, concealing his back license plate. The impact left an impression of his tow-bar in my bumper. We thought we were being carjacked. The driver rushed to my door, reached through the open window and tried to grab my keys from the ignition. I pushed him away while still harnessed in my safety belt. Again, and again he opened my door grabbing for my keys. I forced him back. Then he began yelling, "He has a gun!" which was a lie. I was unarmed. To counteract my assailant, I pulled at the door handle so hard it ripped off. Sharon was tugging at my shirt from the passenger seat fearing the man would hurt me if I got out of the car. The man wanted the object we had picked up, so I said, "Take it!" and popped the trunk. He took it. But his rage didn't quell.
I used my cane from inside the car to jab at the man (whom I now call 'the thug') with non-lethal blows to his upper chest and shoulder area, based on Prison 101 training. Since the tower guards are the only armed staff, I learned alternative ways to maintain control during volatile situations. If circumstances escalated, we were to focus on nonlethal tactics for resolution. Without this training and with my adrenaline high, I could have killed the thug. But I didn't. Instead I seized the opportunity to execute a James Bond departure. I drove the hell away.
Sharon implored me to drive straight to police headquarters. The problem was we didn't know where it was. I drove the speed limit and obeyed all traffic signals trying to find the station. San Diego doesn't post signs for police stations. Apparently the locations of the library and horse shows are more important. En route, Sharon called 411 to ask for directions. Once connected to the SDPD, however, she was placed on hold. Too late. Across the street from our destination we became victims of what we later learned is called a Hot Stop.
The streets looked like a parking lot of black and white squad cars. More than a dozen guns were aimed at us. A helicopter hovered overhead. We were sitting before a firing squad as we heard the ch-ch-ch of ratcheting firearms. A gun was pointed sideways at Sharon's head, 'gangsta style.' Neither of us had been told why we had been stopped, nor were we read our Miranda Rights. We were cuffed. My car and Sharon's purse were searched without permission and I was charged with three violent crimes worthy of 25 years to Life in prison: (1) Assault with a Deadly Weapon (for my aluminum cane) (2) Industrial Robbery (for the found object) and (3) a Weapon's Charge (for an imaginary gun). Sharon? She was let go, a puzzling decision. If my 'crimes' were so bad, she should have been charged as accomplice. Letting a teacher go was their first mistake. Falsely arresting an artist was their second. The first thing Sharon said after my release was, "Draw his picture. Now."
I spent the night in County jail on a cold, concrete floor with no blanket or toilet paper. It took seventeen hours to process me. My bail was $130,000. Yet no charges were filed? Something was up. I had and have no criminal record. I had and have an FBI number. My car license plates qualify me for DMV confidentiality based on my employment at RJD. I had worked in the criminal justice system for over three decades. Why was I being framed?
I tried to get my bail money back by first going through my bondsman, who told me I had to go through the City. The City told me to go through the DA and the DA told me to go back to King Stahlman. No one had the answer to what seemed like a no-brainer: "Why should I shell out $130,000 with no charges filed and no arraignment?"
The driver of the pick-up truck, whom Internal Affairs later claimed was the foreman of a construction company, knew too much. All signs indicated he was an undercover agent. (1) He said I had a gun, which automatically generates a weapons charge even if it's not true. (2) He inflated the monetary value of the yellow object, which bumped that charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. (3) He knew engaging in the hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect is one of the few circumstances when cops can search without a warrant. (4) He seemed to be calling the shots through the female Detective who led my interrogation. She railroaded me by dismissing obvious indications of my innocence, including Sharon's testimony. The thug told her I had hit him in the mouth, but my knuckles were clean. This should have been enough to prove him a liar. She showed me a photograph of the thug's torso. No face. Exposing an undercover cop's ID would nullify his worth in the field. We believe the thug had a personal investment in keeping us from reaching headquarters. His cover would have been blown had we reported him.
After receiving a threatening voicemail from an anonymous male caller, I met with the FBI. The agent said, "He sounds like a cop." Maybe now he'll be held accountable.
Today I carry a copy of the Constitution in my back pocket. I know my rights. Consider doing the same.
* Excerpt from Amerikan Gestapo