On May 22, about two in the morning, two young African-Americans from the East Bay, Brandon Sanders, a graduate student, and John Rhone an aspiring fireman, neither of whom had criminal histories or even so much as a traffic citation, were driving south on Highway 101. They weren't aware that they were being followed by Sheriff's deputies who would tail them to the Mendocino-Sonoma border.
The two men weren't doing anything wrong. They weren't speeding, they weren't driving recklessly.
To all appearances the southbound travelers were just another car on 101 leisurely headed out of Mendocino County. Unlike most travelers, however, the police car silently following these two travelers to the county line where, the officer said, he'd seen their vehicle drift slightly over the line. The officer was so concerned at the line infringement that he pulled them over.
This odd road movie was recorded on a police video with subsequent courtroom narration by Public Defender Bert Schlosser.
Schlosser represented John Rhone, a cannabis caregiver who wants to be a fireman, at Rhone's preliminary hearing on Halloween Day.
Deputy Public Defender Joe Rogoway represented Brandon Sanders, the student. Superior Court Judge Ron Brown presided. Several supporters of the accused, and one or two media types, looked on.
A soundless video showed the long, uneventful, two-car parade from inside the cop car. We saw an impeccably driven vehicle that had done nothing to stop it for.
But as the travelers approached the county line, the proverbial "Last Chance" light turned on, alerting deputies to step on it. If Rhone and Sanders weren't stopped now, they'd be into Sonoma County, a much busier jurisdiction whose law enforcement cadres have more important things to do than troll for random black men.
At the line where Mendocino County becomes Sonoma County, that slight drifting to the left — "crossing over the line one time" — took place, and the deputies turned on their lights and pulled the men over.
Deputy Davis was driving a police pick-up that Rhone and Sanders passed parked on the side of the road going through Hopland. Rhone said he was unaware of this vehicle until he was about 13 miles north of the Mendo-SoCo border.
What the video did not show is what happened right before the stop.
"I was driving at one speed on cruise control," Rhone recalled. "Suddenly, a big white pick up truck came up behind me at super-speed, right on my bumper, his bright lights blinding me. Within 30 seconds of being a distant car in my rearview mirror, I thought I was being followed by some big truck trying to force me off the road. I used my blinker to the right. He followed me. To the left. He followed me. He backed off and then came at me again real fast. I was scared. I didn't know it was police. That's when I drifted over the line."
The video did not show Deputy Davis' provocative speedway driving which had caused the startled Rhone to jog briefly over the traffic line. Deputy Cox in his police pick-up, his dope dog at the ready, soon joined the conversation beside the road.
Rhone and Sanders were cooperative and non-confrontational as they denied deputies the right to search their car. The cops ran background checks on Sanders and Rhone and couldn't find anything on them. Both had spotless records, had never been arrested.
Rhone continued, "When he saw I had nothing on my record, that's when he got upset. He told us, 'I'm going to arrest you because I don't think you are who you say you are.'" At the Halloween arraignment, Judge Brown asked the defendants about the note left by deputy Davis. The note advised deputy Cox to "Make sure you find out if they are who they say they are."
Attorney Schlosser brought up two cases which he argued make the stop illegal. He cited a federal case, Collins (314F3d439), which requires "pronounced weaving" — crossing over the line for 7-10 seconds — as probable cause to pull a vehicle over for that violation. Schlosser's state case citation was also on target. Deputy Cox had confiscated the car keys, immobilizing the vehicle, as he reportedly announced, "I'm taking the keys. I'm going in the trunk. The car is mine."
Schlosser noted, "Mayberry says, once a vehicle is immobilized, they have to get a search warrant, barring exigent circumstances. There were none. There was no public safety issue, no guns, no kind of danger... no one trying to run... Everyone moved about very calmly. They should have gone to get warrants."
As for Rhone's medical marijuana exemption, expert testimony showed he was following legal guidelines. He was carrying 10 pounds of cannabis medicine in boxes for designated patients in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area with their names affixed to each of their portions.
"Six out of the 10 pounds were leaf," Rhone said. "Only four were bud. My collective values leaf."
Rhone insisted that all the marijuana belonged to him and his collective. Sanders was merely asked to help make the long drive from the Bay Area to Mendocino County and back.
Deputy Public Defender Rogoway spoke to his client's lack of involvement.
"Mr. Sanders made this statement to Deputy Davis: 'It's my understanding that the marijuana in the vehicle was medical in nature.' There was nothing whatsoever to tie the marijuana to Mr. Sanders: no indicia, no processed marijuana, no possession, no packaging, nothing found in the passenger's seat. The recommendation was in Rhone's backpack. Rhone says, 'It's mine. It isn't Sanders.'"
John Rhone is 24. Brandon Sanders is 23. Sanders graduated in three years from UC Berkeley with a business degree and has gone on to post-graduate work. Rhone is concerned that his arrest will prevent him from getting a job as an Oakland firefighter.
Judge Brown is considering the arguments. Neutral observers expect him to toss it.
Rhone explains, "If you knew my history, you'd understand why I am doing this. I worked with an ambulance company as an Emergency Medical Technician. I thought of going to med school because I wanted to help people. I applied to be a police officer and a firefighter for the same reason. I've never even been near a police officer on criminal charges. I don't even smoke marijuana. I'm a caregiver for others because all I want is to help people."
(Contact Pebbles Trippet at the Patient Innocence Project, 964-9377.)