A Good Stop, Twisted

Did you hear about the horrible racist stop of Juanisha Brooks? It was just a routine traffic stop in Virginia, with no one hurt, not even prosecuted, but still it made the New York Times because it proved systemic racism and people must know what happened.

Two troopers stopped Ms. Brooks, 34, around 2:21 a.m. after following her car past roughly two or three exits on the Capitol Beltway. According to a police report, her taillights were not turned on, she had twice followed “too close” to surrounding vehicles and she had failed to signal when changing lanes.

During the stop, Ms. Brooks said in an interview on Tuesday, the trooper who approached her did not tell her why she was being pulled over even though she asked repeatedly.

Outrageous, right, but it didn’t end there.

“Instead of letting me know why he stopped me, he immediately escalated the situation, and said, ‘How about you step out of the car, and I’ll show you,’ or something of that nature,” Ms. Brooks said.

Brooks thought she was doomed.

For Ms. Brooks, who said her phone was knocked out of her hand as she tried to record the stop, the episode was a too familiar scene she has watched play out before in other Black drivers’ encounters with the police.

“I thought about Philando Castile, I thought about Sandra Bland, and as soon as I was shoved against the car I just hoped and prayed that it wouldn’t be me,” Ms. Brooks said.

And when the Steve Descano, the Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney, learned of this, all charges were dropped.

In a letter dated April 15 sent to the Virginia State Police’s Office of Internal Affairs, Steve T. Descano, the commonwealth’s attorney for Fairfax County, requested an investigation into the matter. He wrote that the traffic stop “was without proper legal basis,” citing a state law that went into effect on March 1 that makes it illegal for the police to pull over motorists for reasons including the smell of marijuana or a broken taillight.

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

The outrageous treatment was caught on camera.

Dashboard camera footage shows one trooper, Robert G. Hindenlang, and an accompanying trainee following Ms. Brooks’s car on the highway. Trooper Hindenlang makes a remark about Ms. Brooks’s taillights and eventually turns on his patrol car’s emergency lights.

Ms. Brooks said in an interview that when Trooper Hindenlang initially tried to pull her over, she thought the emergency lights behind her were an ambulance, so she stopped on the highway shoulder and then drove off.

Video footage shows Trooper Hindenlang approaching Ms. Brooks’s car and asking for her license and registration, to which she replies, “Sure” and asks why she was stopped. Trooper Hindenlang asks her to step out of the car numerous times, then opens her door and grabs her out of the car, forcing her into handcuffs while pushing her against the vehicle.

As Brooks noted, the racism was palpable.

“At no point in the stop or during that time was I treated with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves,” Ms. Brooks said of her encounter with Trooper Hindenlang. “If I was a white woman, I believe he would have immediately let me know why he was pulling me over.”

So too was its impact on Brooks.

“I cried all day, and I said, ‘I can’t let someone else die from a pretextual stop,’” Ms. Brooks said.

And so all charges were dropped, Brooks was unharmed, and her story told in the paper of record. Except that the stop was lawful and the trooper is under no duty to inform a driver of the reason for the stop no matter how many times she asks. It wouldn’t have hurt for him to say so, as he was trying to walk her to the back of her car to see that her tail lights were out, but her assumption that the trooper would have told a white person but not her exists mostly in her head.

Having pulled over but left because she mistook a cruiser for an ambulance, the trooper had reason to be concerned. The trooper has the authority to order her out of the car, and he asked her repeatedly before using force to remove her, as the law permits.

And as is obvious to every lawyer here, there was absolutely nothing about this stop that was unusual, and nothing came of the stop that gave rise to it being made into a cause célèbre. Yet, here it is, a story about nothing from Virginia in the New York Times, by Allyson Walker, turning an entirely lawful, entirely appropriate, and entirely banal stop into a demonstration of outrageous police conduct.

There is outrageous police conduct going on out there. This ain’t it.

But to be fair, the rhetoric of the Descano, the Commonwealth’s Attorney, didn’t help matters. That someone suffers from unwarranted fear during a routine traffic stop happens, but that’s not the fault of the police who conduct the stop but the mindset of the person being stopped. There’s a good chance, given the emphasis shown the worst outlier cases, and with articles like this in the New York Times trying desperately to foster irrational fear and legal ignorance wherever possible, that more black people will suffer needless fear when stopped by police.

As a Defense Department employee, Ms. Brooks often thinks about what it means “to protect and defend” people, she said, but she realizes sometimes those protections are not afforded to everyone equally. The trooper she encountered, she said, “refused to protect” her.

This sort of pandering and propagating the wrongful and ignorant belief about what the law permits, and what people should expect, in encounters with police make it increasingly likely that people will make demands, refuse orders and resist lawful authority when a stop happens. The result of spreading these wrongheaded expectations, and fostering the belief that people have a right to resist, will be increased use of force, and more dead bodies. When people are made stupider, bad things will happen. Was that what you were trying to accomplish, Descano and Walker, more dead black people? That’s what garbage like this is going to produce.

20 thoughts on “A Good Stop, Twisted

  1. Chris Hundt

    Why do you say “the stop was lawful”? The Commonwealth’s Attorney concluded otherwise.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yes, he did. And yet, the facts remain facts, the legal assertion in the article about stops for no tail lights being dubious and that’s without bring up the notorious Heien decision. Perhaps she will bring a 1983 action and a court will rule on the lawfulness of the stop. If it was held to be unlawful, then I will be wrong. But that the Commonwealth’s Attorney concluded otherwise no more changes reality than if he concluded that gravity no longer applies in Virginia because it keeps people down.

  2. Lee Keller King

    It sometimes appears that the mainstream media are intentionally stoking racial distrust and hatred for the police. For what reason, I cannot tell. I would hate to be drawn down some conspiracy rabbit hole and believe there was some hidden purpose for these actions, but what is the explanation? Do they WANT more unrest because it sells papers/clicks? Is the explanation that “if it bleeds it leads?”

    I try to comfort myself by the quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte: “Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” But that brings up the question of how so many incompetent people got into positions of influence.

    But despair is a sin.

    1. SHG Post author

      Regardless of motive, promoting resistance to police is going to end badly. I don’t want anyone harmed or killed. The NYT doesn’t seem to care.

  3. Wade McNichols

    This has nothing to do with Conlaw or Heien. It is a new particularity of Virginia law. As of March 1, 2021, it is unlawful for an officer to stop a vehicle in Virginia for defective equipment violations, including unlit taillights. See Virgina Code 46.2-1030.

    “No law-enforcement officer shall stop a motor vehicle for a violation of this section, except that a law-enforcement officer may stop a vehicle if it displays no lighted headlights during the time periods set forth in subsection A.”

    The legislature also included a provision that requires all evidence seized during such a stop to be suppressed.

    The CWA may be pandering, but he’s probably not wrong.

    1. SHG Post author

      The new law is linked in the post, and while I’m hesitant to comment on it, it’s not clear that it applies to tail lights rather than license plate lights. That said, the lights were one of three bases for the stop.

      …she had twice followed “too close” to surrounding vehicles and she had failed to signal when changing lanes.

      Assuming that the March 1 change prohibited a stop for driving without tail lights, it doesn’t alter the other bases or the stop.

      1. Guitardave

        I know this is tangential, but it is directly related to the “why”.
        I’ve put a lot of miles on behind the wheel, and I’ve had more than a few close calls in the fog and the rain with taillight-less cars.
        Two reasons for this, one you can’t do anything about, and that is human stupidity. The other is the poorly thought out ‘we need a law’ BS that brought about the mandatory daytime driving lights.

        People get outa bed, half asleep, before their shot of caffeine (winch often don’t help, see reason one) jump in the car. Its still dark or foggy, but looking ahead (they never look in their mirrors) there is light on the road from the daytime driving lights….and they’re good to go. Giddy up.

        Almost all cars that don’t have optional light sensors that automatically turn on all the lights still have no taillights with the now much brighter LED daytime driving lights. The problems actually gotten worse. I honked and hollered at a guy in a fairly new Audi SUV the other nite ( I think i scared him, till he heard me yell, LIGHTS BONEHEAD!) it was completely dark at the time.

        Something must be done….I think.
        Gotta run….and drive some more with the boneheads.

        1. SHG Post author

          Not as tangential as you may think. There is a reason why we have things like lights on cars, and there’s a reason why people drive around unaware that their lights aren’t on or aren’t working. It’s not to enable pretext stops (thanks, Whren court), but lives are at stake when there is no reason why they should be. Maybe if we were all far more aware and diligent, we could address this ourselves without official intervention, but people are boneheads, or worse.

          1. John Barleycorn

            Come on now esteemed one….

            There is no reason for you to jump straight to the “it is raining boneheads” theory, just because you are not a prosecutor or an editor at that news paper you read everyday.

      2. delurking

        We are a nation of laws, except legislatures are completely incompetent to write well-structured laws, such that professionals like you are hesitant because what should be a simple law to intepret is not. I spent 15 minutes on it as an exercise, and Mr. McNichols is correct following standard English and logic, but it is ridiculously convoluted. It is also unlikely to be what the drafters intended, as the structure implies they they meant to allow officers to stop cars for lack of both headlights, both taillights, or both brake lights; but not for lack of other lights, or for single failed lights. Are > 50% of laws like this?

        1. SHG Post author

          Your knowledge of the canons of statutory construction rivals my knowledge of psychopharmacology.

  4. Elpey P.

    “That’s what garbage like this is going to produce.”

    Some people are just a step or two short of carrying spare crosses and a gas can around in their trunk, ready to burn one whenever they feel the need to warn some people of how society feels about them. Or maybe to make their enemies look bad and their own efforts look virtuous.

    We don’t necessarily need to resolve the question of whether they are misguided do-gooders, callous crusaders or opportunistic gamers, because intent doesn’t matter and outcomes are involuntary with (drum roll please…) Systemic Racism.

    1. SHG Post author

      Certainly a bunch more dead black guys* and society will finally cure (drum roll please…) Systemic Racism.

      *Sorry dead black guys, but it’s for a good cause.

      1. Elpey P.

        “Threw all the people
        in relocation camps
        Under lock and key
        made damn sure they’re free”

  5. Drew Conlin

    I comprehend this piece as you writing this was a routine stop to the extent there is such a thing distorted way out of proportion.
    I don’t think it’s (piece) about the specific law regarding taillights. It’s more about media NYT in this case dumping more gasoline on a fire that may now be or soon will be out of control.
    As a practical matter if tail lights are not on that means either they are burned out or…. no lights (headlights etc) are on because in most cars when light switch is engaged in 1st position 1st taillights and front parking lights illuminate next engagement is headlights. Probably not relevant as there were other reasons for stop.

  6. Scarlet Pimpernel

    What you are seeing is intersectionality in action, or more specifically the intersection of two narratives that are part of the core beliefs of modern progressives. The first being that of Systemic Racism and the second that we have a Patriarchal Society built to benefit men. This means that there is an admitted push to center Black women’s stories when discussing police killings. To do otherwise or to take a critical look at who are being killed by cops would call into question both of those assumptions, or at least raise uncomfortable questions.
    If we look at the numbers, around 95% of people killed by police are men. This means that even though racism plays a part*, sex is a much greater deciding factor and not in men’s favor.
    This also means that once you start looking into why there is such a disparity, the answers may lead to some uncomfortable answers as to why at least some of the racial disparities exist. Or to put it another way, ask yourself why more men than women are killed. Then ask yourself if those factors could also contribute to the disproportionate number of Black males killed and if so, what does that mean for the claim of Systemic Racism.
    Taken together this means that the only way to convince the world that women always have it worse than men and that System Racism is the be all end all, is to prop up any and all possible stories of police misconduct against Black women in the hope that people won’t look too deep into the numbers.

    * despite Black people making up only around 12% of the population Black men make up around 26% of those killed by cops

  7. Jack Holden

    I would like to believe we could hold police to a higher standard than “not breaking the law.”

      1. Jack Holden

        “The trooper has the authority to order her out of the car, and he asked her repeatedly before using force to remove her, as the law permits.”

        Your point is that the stop was lawful. I’m implying that it was unprofessional to escalate an encounter that did not require it.

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