I just recently listened to the Truth & Justice podcast about Bob Ruff’s student Abenicio Cordoba-Wilson, and quite frankly, I’m pissed. For those of you who have not taken the time to listen to Truth & Justice, I highly recommend it if you’re interested in criminal justice reform. Bob Ruff takes deep dives into cases where he believes justice was not served. This case hits close to home for Bob, as he knows both the victim and the officer involved.
The Facts of the Case
Abenicio (Abi) is a college student on his way home at night and he gets pulled over by a Michigan State Trooper. The reason cited for pulling him over was having a dim or non-functioning license plate light. The majority of the traffic stop was recorded by Abi on his phone.
The trooper initially approaches the passenger side of the vehicle. This is a common practice that allows the trooper to stay safer at night when passing motorists may not be able to see him. Abi’s passenger-side window doesn’t roll down, so he unlocks the door and the trooper talks to him through the open door.
As the trooper is talking to Abi through the open door, he is shining his flashlight into the car. Abi then tells him that he is not consenting to a search of his vehicle and he begins to film the interaction on his cell phone. He then says to the officer, “Sir, can you please get away from my car, because you are invading my privacy in this moment in time.” Abi then seems to try to shut the passenger side door, at which point The trooper states, “Do not shut the door, otherwise I’m gonna rip you out by your face.”
Abi asks the trooper to come over to his side of the vehicle where the window works, but the trooper stays on the passenger side and calls for another unit. He then asks Abi for his driver’s license and Abi begins to look for it. His car is a mess and you can see him frantically looking through papers for his license.
As he is doing this, Abi says, “God, you are so awesome.” He then asks the trooper, “How’s your day going, sir?” to which the trooper replies, “It’s going great.” The trooper then asks Abi again if he has his license. Abi says yes, and continues to look for it. A few seconds pass, and the trooper asks again, “Do you have your license, or no? You have five seconds to give me your license.” Abi replies that he is still looking, which prompts the trooper to tell Abi to get out of the car. He repeats this command while Abi continues to search for his license. The trooper walks to the driver’s side of the car and begins to take Abi out. Abi, trying to turn his phone off, does not comply immediately by putting his hand behind is back, but does so as soon as he turns his phone off. The entire interaction only lasts about two-and-a-half minutes. Now, let’s discuss a few things about this.
Why was Abi Pulled Over?
The initial reason for the stop, dimmed or non-functioning plate lights…bullshit.
Photos of Abi’s license plate are available on the Truth & Justice website. In them, you can see that one of the lights is dimmed, but the plate is still visible at night. This seems like an excuse for the trooper to pull Abi over and try to get something else. It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean the trooper isn’t allowed to pull Abi over, but it does give Abi grounds to fight a ticket or arrest in court.
Was There an Illegal Search?
Abi is alleging that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated by the trooper for illegally searching his car during the stop. After seeing the footage, I’d have to say that the trooper was not actually “searching” Abi’s car. The trooper didn’t touch anything in Abi’s car at this point; he simply shone his flashlight to see the interior. Any police officer on a traffic stop has the right to look through windows and see what is in “plain view.” The thought on that is that the officer is looking for weapons or anything you might reach for that could do harm.
From what I saw, the trooper was doing just that; the door just happened to be open because the passenger-side window didn’t work. He wasn’t actively “searching” by moving things around or looking into areas of the car that were not visible had the door been closed. Now, I’m not sure if the Trooper did any “active searching” before Abi starting filming. That being said, Abi is certainly entitled to his opinion on the matter and filming the interaction is not a bad idea.
Escalating and De-Escalating the Situation
“Do not shut the door, otherwise I’m gonna rip you out by your face.” For the life of me, I have no idea why the trooper would have said this. As a police officer, this embarrasses me. I teach my younger officers to remain professional and polite until it is no longer time to be polite. Then, when things calm down, you begin to be professional and polite again. Yes, it is similar to a quote from Roadhouse, but it holds water.
There was absolutely no reason whatsoever to escalate the situation to that level. Abi may have struck a nerve with the officer when he began filming and asking the trooper to not search his car, but he wasn’t being combative or non-compliant. In fact, Abi himself tried to de-escalate the situation when he asked the trooper how his day was going. Had it been me, when Abi asked me to come to his side of the car, I simply would have said, “I’m good right here. Let me see your license, please.” It diffuses the situation immediately without taking away from my command presence as an officer and it moves the situation on to the next course of action needed to finish the traffic stop.
If Abi continued to go on about his rights being violated, I would have said, “that’s something you can talk to your lawyer about, but for right now, I just need to see your license.” Again, this is an example of diffusing the situation by giving him a course of action if he decides to pursue it, while still giving a command.
I was never taught de-escalation techniques. It’s something I developed on my own by talking to people and being put in tough situations. I can’t tell you how many times people have claimed I was violating their constitutional rights. It’s something I deal with on an almost daily level. On a training level, de-escalation techniques are incorporated into scenarios, but it isn’t something taught as a separate class, as it should be. But, that is a discussion for another day.
Did the Trooper Assault Abi?
Now, some people are saying that the Trooper saying “Do not shut the door, otherwise I’m gonna rip you out by your face.” is legally assault. The only thing I have to say about that is, good luck trying to get that to stick in court. I don’t mean to sound like a dick, but police are afforded a bit of leeway when it comes to verbal interactions.
Now, was it professional? Not at all. Did it violate a department policy? Maybe, I don’t know Michigan State Troopers’ policies. Did he violate the law according to the letter? Maybe, but again, it’s going to be hard to get a prosecutor to file charges to that degree on a police officer. Is it worth pursuing? Maybe. At the very least, it is more ammunition for Abi’s defense to show how out of line the trooper was. Make no mistake: he was out of line. This entire interaction looks like the trooper was looking for an arrest from the very beginning.
Was Abi Resisting Arrest?
The trooper pulls Abi out of the car and tries to get his hands behind his back in order to cuff him. Abi is trying to turn his phone off and doesn’t immediately comply. The trooper added a charge of resisting because of this. By the letter of the law, yes, Abi was resisting. I don’t think that is going to hold up in court, though. As an officer, we are not lawyers. We don’t know the letter of the law for every law that is being broken. What we are expected to know are the fundamental elements of a crime or statute. If those fundamental elements are met, it becomes a charge. Those charges are then vetted by a prosecutor who knows the law better than the charging officer or agency.
What this trooper was doing is called “stacking the charges.” The arresting officer stacks all of the possible charges against a person and the prosecutor says, “no, that won’t work; that one won’t work; this one might; this one definitely will.” You get the point. That being said, I have had many cases that I could have added resisting, but didn’t because I know it can be kind of a bullshit charge. Unless someone is actively evading or fighting me, I’m probably not going to charge resisting. But, this wasn’t my arrest nor my jurisdiction. Overall, I would be willing to bet that this charge gets dropped.
Controlling the Situation for a Better Outcome
This trooper’s actions serve as an embarrassment to police. He escalated a situation that could have easily been a minor traffic stop into an arrest. All too often, the macho attitude gets in the way of policing. He simply didn’t need to take it to that level. He could have controlled the situation and maintained his authority by choosing better words. Instead, he treated Abi like he was beneath him.
This serves as another example of the “us vs. them” mentality that simply shouldn’t exist. Abi is a part of the community in which this trooper presumably works and lives. There needs to be a return to community-oriented policing. If you, as an officer are a part of the community, the community will protect you, as much as you protect it. Luckily, this didn’t escalate any further and no one got hurt, but, this just can’t keep happening. While this case may seem minor, it is indicative of a much wider problem in American policing. It is only by continuing to shine a light on cases like this that we have hope for criminal justice reform.