Virginia State Trooper Roughs Up, Arrests Black Woman For Driving While Not Drunk
Juanisha C. Brooks was driving home last March on the Capital Beltway when the flashing lights of an emergency vehicle appeared behind her. She thought it was an ambulance, but she wasn't so lucky. When she realized a cop car was pulling her over, she stopped on the first side street. What happened afterward is immediately familiar to most Black people.
Virginia State Police Trooper Robert G. Hindenlang refused to tell Brooks why he'd pulled her over, but instead insisted she leave her car so he could show her, like it's a hidden camera series called "Most Outrageous Traffic Stops." It's late at night and probably safer for everyone involved, especially the woman who isn't armed, that Brooks remain in the car, but Hindenlang was on a power trip.
Hindenlang's dashboard camera video shows the trooper unlocking Brooks's door and dragging her out of the car, while she “loudly pleaded with him to stop." (That's an instinctive human reaction, but honestly, it probably just get cops off.) He pressed her against the car and handcuffed her.
Brooks told the trooper she'd had a single cocktail a couple hours earlier, which was a mistake because you shouldn't tell a cop the weather. When she refused to take a sobriety test, Hindenlang informed her she was "now under arrest for driving under the influence." Virginia has an implied consent law, which means "anyone operating a motor vehicle in the Commonwealth of Virginia automatically consents to a blood or breath test if they are arrested for a DWI or DUI type of offense." I'm not crazy about these laws because they weaken a citizen's right against self-incrimination, but apparently it was “difficult" to make drunk driving charges stick without sobriety tests because someone's lousy driving is not always proof they're intoxicated.
The issue here, of course, is that Hindenlang didn't pull Brooks over because he had reason to believe she was driving under the influence. She wasn't swerving around the highway, speeding, or otherwise acting recklessly. No, she had a broken tail light, which is a common law enforcement euphemism for “Black."
Brooks didn't even appear impaired when Hindenlang stopped her. He claimed he detected "a fruity smell coming from her person," like this was an impromptu wine tasting. I imagine him saying, “The lingering citrus notes on her breath told me she had a Pinot Grigio, grown in a cooler climate and from the northern end of the vineyard." Brooks said this was just her perfume.
From the Washington Post:
"Why were your eyes so watery when I pulled up?" Hindenlang asked her.
"Why were my eyes watering?" Brooks, who is Black, answered the trooper. "Because people are being shot by the police. I'm freaking nervous."
Don't expect empathy from a cop. That's not part of the training. Your salty discharge will just confuse them.
Brooks took a breathalyzer test twice at the Fairfax County jail. The result was a 0.0 blood alcohol level, so she was either served an extremely watered-down drink or the average human can safely metabolize a single alcoholic beverage within two hours.
Hindenlang wasn't finished lording over Brooks. He charged her with resisting arrest (a classic), eluding police (a stretch), failing to have headlights on and reckless driving (all bullshit). Brooks copped to forgetting to turn on her headlights while on the brightly lit Beltway, but the Democratic-controlled Virginia General Assembly banned cops from pulling people over for dark taillights, on March 1, days before Brooks's arrest.
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano dismissed all charges after reviewing the dashcam video Brooks's attorney provided. He's also requested that the police conduct an internal investigation, which is like asking Fredo Corleone to check up on his brother, Sonny.
In a letter to police, he said that "the stop was without proper legal basis," given the recent change in the law, and that the "dashcam footage does not provide a factual basis to support the warrants."
Corinne Geller, the spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, defended the stop and arrest.
She said Hindenlang observed Brooks driving "without any headlights or taillights, tailgating other vehicles and making unsafe lane changes, which are indicators of an impaired driver and provided reasonable suspicion for the trooper to initiate a traffic stop." Geller said Brooks was taken into custody "due to her persistent refusal to comply with the trooper's requests" and because of the trooper's suspicion that Brooks might have been driving under the influence."
This is all eleventh-hour CYA. Watch the video. Hindenlang doesn't pull over Brooks because he thinks she's drunk. Making “unsafe" lane changes also isn't compelling evidence that a driver's impaired, unless the entire city of Seattle's wasted.
Brooks works for the Defense Department and has top-secret clearance, so her “whole livelihood" was at risk, as well as her actual life. Defense Department employees can't have any charges when they have clearance. Brooks's superiors questioned her about the arrest.
"I'm nervous because I've seen so many of these interactions," Brooks said in an interview. "I was having a panic attack. … I felt to get out, I would be putting myself in danger."
The usual suspects will argue that this could've been avoided if Brooks simply “complied" with her BS stop. This is a Dred Scott sentiment, where a Black person has no rights law enforcement is bound to respect. A woman shouldn't be forced to exit her car late at night on a dark street. Police encounters are high-stress and pose a tremendous risk to civilians. The average carjacker might kill you but more often will just take your vehicle and leave you alone. You won't wind up in jail, facing jacked-up charges.
The police also don't make traffic stops for fun. Even if you behave perfectly, you could still get arrested and charged with whatever's handy. That's often the whole point. Lauren Bonds, legal director of the National Police Accountability Project, said officers who conduct stops about traffic safety are trained to convert them into investigative stops, "looking for drugs, looking for a reason that would justify more of a search." Cops are encouraged to escalate.
Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler recently told an interviewer for NPR that he brings a police officer into his classes who invites students to ride with him to witness his power. "He tells the students, 'Pick any car you want on the street and I'll stop it,' " Butler said. "He's a good cop. He waits until he finds a legal reason, but he says that he can follow any car for four or five minutes and he'll find a reason. There's so many traffic infractions that any time you drive, you commit one. And that gives police an extraordinary amount of power, and we know that they selectively use this power against Black and Brown people."
These stops aren't about preventing traffic accidents or saving lives. It's all about power.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."