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Virginia prosecutor says Black motorist should never have been pulled over, asks for investigation

The Washington Post via Getty Im

A Black employee of the Defense Department should not have been stopped by Virginia state troopers, says a prosecutor who dismissed the four charges against her and wants an investigation into what happened.

Juanisha Brooks told CNN she was driving to her Alexandria, Virginia, home on March 6 when she was stopped by a pair of Virginia State Police officers.

A video obtained by CNN shows one of the troopers demanding Brooks get out of her car, but he said he would not tell her why until after she got out. Brooks keeps asking for a reason and is eventually pulled from her vehicle.

Trooper R.G. Hindenlang then tells Brooks the stop was for a taillight that is out, among other factors, the video shows.

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano, in an April letter to state police, said a review of dashcam footage showed the stop had no legal basis. He cited a state law change prohibiting stops regarding taillights.

Descano asked that the actions of Hindenlang and Trooper S. Kapusta, a trainee, be investigated by the police agency’s internal affairs department. He said Brooks should not have been put in the position of worrying about her safety.

Hindenlang told Brooks she was being arrested for DUI — but a later sobriety test showed she had no alcohol in her system, an investigative report says.

CNN was unable Monday to reach Hindenlang for comment. Kapusta, through state police, declined to comment.

Corinne Geller, a Virginia State Police spokesperson, said the arrest of Brooks was the result of department policy, including determining whether a motorist may be under the influence. Brooks declined to take a sobriety test during the stop.

“Taking Ms. Brooks into custody was due to her persistent refusal to comply with the trooper’s requests,” she wrote in an email.

The request for the investigation comes amid ongoing scrutiny over alleged police misconduct and improper force against people of color.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced last month he was looking into whether there was a “pattern of misconduct” at the Windsor Police Department after two officers pointed guns at a Black and Latino US Army officer, pepper-sprayed him and pushed him to the ground. The Army officer was released without charges.

Flashing lights and a sobriety test

The dash camera video of the traffic stop, obtained by CNN from Brooks’ attorney, shows the two troopers were parked along an entrance ramp on I-495. They observed a Honda traveling without any headlights or taillights, tailgating other vehicles and making unsafe lane changes, says Geller.

Such actions are indicators of an impaired driver and provided reasonable suspicion for the trooper to initiate a traffic stop, Geller said in a statement.

Brooks, 34, who works as a video producer for the Defense Department and has security clearance, told CNN that her daytime headlights were turned on and that they “were never off.”

The officers remained a few car lengths behind the suspected vehicle without their emergency lights on as the suspected vehicle’s right turn signal was left on, according to the video. Once the suspected car’s turn signal was turned off, the officer’s emergency lights and sirens were turned on, the video shows.

Brooks exited the highway and appeared to attempt to stop along the shoulder, but continued to drive, the video shows. Brooks told CNN she continued to drive not to elude the police, but because she initially thought it was an emergency vehicle that had passed by.

She continued driving down the ramp onto South Van Dorn Street and then turned onto Oakwood Road and then came to a complete stop.

Hindenlang and Kapusta exited their vehicle and approached Brooks at the driver-side window.

Brooks is heard asking Hindenlang why he pulled her over, to which he responds, “Can you step out here? I’ll show you.” Brooks again asks the officer why she must step out of the car, to which he says “I’ll show you what’s wrong with your car.” Brooks is heard on the video asking the officer if he could tell her what’s wrong with the car.

Geller says “the trooper repeatedly asked for Ms. Brooks to exit her vehicle, so as to prevent her from driving off a second time. Ms. Brooks refused to comply, despite the trooper’s repeated requests for her cooperation.”

Hindenlang at one point tells Brooks she took off from him after a traffic stop. Brooks is heard explaining to the officer that she initially thought the officer’s vehicle was an ambulance when she pulled off the road.

Asked by the officer why her eyes were watery, Brooks is heard on the video telling the officer, “Because people are being shot by the police, I’m freaking nervous.”

Asked whether she had been drinking that night, Brooks told the officer she had a cocktail two hours prior and she refused to do a sobriety or breath test. She told CNN she refused the test because she did not trust it because of reports of a criminal investigation into a former Fairfax County police officer who allegedly stopped motorists with no legal cause.

Hindenlang wrote in his report that based upon Brooks’ “aggressive attitude, watery eyes, odor, and admission to consuming alcohol two hours before the stop” that he advised she was under arrest for driving under the influence.

Brooks was arrested and taken to the Fairfax County jail, where she was given a sobriety test which showed her blood alcohol content level to be 0.00g/210 L, according to a copy of her blood alcohol analysis obtained by CNN.

Brooks was charged with reckless driving, failure to activate vehicle light and illumination devices between sunrise and sunset, misdemeanor attempting to elude police, and misdemeanor obstruction of justice, according to the investigative report.

Geller, the Virginia State Police spokesperson, said in the statement the agency began a review of the incident before it heard from Descano.

“State police learned about (Brooks’) concerns through a third party and took it upon ourselves to contact her and follow up on her concerns. It was after that conversation took place that state police self-initiated an internal administrative review and investigation of the traffic stop.”

‘Sickening and unacceptable’

Brooks’ attorney, Patrick Blanch, told CNN that Hindenlang’s actions “inevitably brings to mind the well-documented and painful experiences of minorities with law enforcement in our country.”

His client worked at CNN as a media coordinator for seven months in 2012.

In his letter, Descano writes the dashcam footage “does not provide a factual basis to support the warrants or summons issued in this case” and added that the written reports, charging decisions and the video footage gave him pause.

“It’s sickening and unacceptable that any member of our community fears for their safety during a routine traffic stop. That’s why I will not rest until we bring about the day when this is no longer the case,” Descano said in a separate statement to CNN.

The administrative investigation remains ongoing.

Geller, with the state police, said troopers made no reference to Brooks’ ethnicity or gender.

“The Virginia State Police adheres to strict policies regarding employee conduct and requires our employees to perform their duties with exceptional professionalism and integrity, and to treat the public with fairness and respect at all times,” she wrote in the statement.

Brooks said she is speaking out publicly about the incident because she hopes doing so will prevent it from happening to someone else.

“I think it’s important to tell what’s happening and tell the truth because I don’t want that next person — I could have been killed. And I don’t want that next person to die right because that officer right now he’s still out there patrolling. … I want to spread awareness so that a change can be made.”

Article Topic Follows: National Politics

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