Imagine you’re driving and, behind you, a police officer turns on blue lights. You hear sirens and pull over.
You lower your window as the officer approaches.
If the officer suspects you’ve been drinking, do you have the right to refuse to take a field sobriety test or blow into a blood-alcohol reader? If the officer wants to search your car, can you say no?
You shouldn’t have to guess about your rights during an encounter with law enforcement, says 36-year-old tech entrepreneur and Davidson College graduate Mbey Njie. In both scenarios, DUI and police search laws vary by state.
Njie created a smartphone app called “Legal Equalizer.” It helps you understand your rights and also alerts selected contacts in your phone that you’ve been stopped by a police officer. A built-in video feature uses your phone’s camera to record the interaction and the video is automatically saved.
The app is birthed from Njie’s frustration, as a black man in North Carolina and Georgia, who says he is frequently pulled over for minor traffic violations.
He attended Davidson College, just north of Charlotte, in the early 2000s. Then, the school had few black students and nearly 90 percent of the surrounding small town was white.
“If you went off campus 10 times, every four to six times, as a young black male, you’re going to get pulled over by a police officer from the town of Davidson,” Njie said. “Most times, they would try to search your car and ask you questions.”
None of the traffic stops in Davidson resulted in tickets or arrests, he said.
After college, in his home state of Georgia, Njie says he had similar encounters with police.
The first version of the Legal Equalizer app emerged in 2015 and was marketed mostly as a police watchdog tool. It was a year after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., setting off a week of protests. A few months later, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer.
The high-profile nature of deaths at the hands of police gave rise to law enforcement agencies nationally buying body-worn body cameras to record police interactions with the public.
Legal Equalizer, on the other hand, puts the camera in the hands of a person stopped by a police officer.
App offers library of laws
In the first two years, Njie’s Legal Equalizer saw nearly 100,000 app downloads. Similar apps exist from the American Civil Liberties Union, Cop Watch and Five-O.
To set his apart, Njie has expanded the scope to include links to local legal help and descriptions of state and federal laws relevant to police searches, DUIs, and drug possession. Njie hopes to broaden the app’s tools to be useful for victims of domestic violence and people targeted by immigration officers.
He’s found support within law enforcement.
In late 2016, after launching Legal Equalizer, Njie was critical of local police officers in Georgia. On Twitter, he singled out Dr. Cedric Alexander, then DeKalb County’s director of public safety. Njie said too many black drivers were targeted with minor traffic violations.
Alexander, who is also black, responded to Njie: “Find a way to make a difference and not just complain. Get on the resolution train.”
In a later tweet, Alexander gave Njie his phone number and offered to meet.
“He was slamming me. But, that’s part of what we have to do in policing. We have to reach out,” Alexander said.
In their meeting, Njie explained the Legal Equalizer app.
Alexander, a former police chief and now deputy mayor of Rochester, N.Y., supports Legal Equalizer as a citizen education tool. But, he cautions against using the app’s bank of law briefs to argue with police officers.
“Don’t say ‘Well, under North Carolina law, this and that,” Alexander said. “This is something we can take up in the court room … We don’t want officers to allow themselves to get pulled into a legal debate on the street.”
If used properly, the app shouldn’t create a problem during most traffic stops or police encounters, Alexander said.
Legal Equalizer’s library of laws cover every state in the U.S. and its video feature is free to use. The attorney on speed dial function is in the early stages of development and will include fees for users.
So far, Njie has focused on building attorney resources and Legal Equalizer users in the Atlanta area. In mid-February, he began marketing the app and recruiting attorneys in Charlotte.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department says its officers are accustomed to being recorded during traffic stops and other activities because every officer wears a body camera. In Charlotte, it’s routine for a driver or a passenger to record a police officer with a smartphone, says Lt. Brad Koch, a CMPD spokesperson.
Koch says traffic stops pose safety risks to police officers and it’s important that drivers and passengers to keep their hands visible. That means reaching for your phone or moving quickly to record the encounter could be problematic.
“The two most important things citizens can do whenever they are pulled over is to comply and cooperate,” Koch said. “It is imperative that the officer can see the individual’s hands and that they do not make any sudden movements.”
Las Vegas Metro police shot and killed a 22-year-old man early Friday morning after he reached for a weapon and defied commands repeatedly, police said.
Officers Francisco Rivera, 28, and Padilla Mills, 23, were involved in the shooting in the 200 block of Madge Lane, near Charleston Boulevard and Sloan Lane.
Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman on Monday said officers were on their way to another call when they spotted Junior David Lopez driving recklessly with two women in a blue Chrysler 300.
“Hey, what are you doing? Stay in the car man,” one of the officers yelled. “Stay in the ****ing car! Don’t move! Do not ****ing move!”
When officers stopped the vehicle, Lopez got out of the vehicle with a Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .380 firearm in his hand then tossed it on the ground, police said.
Zimmerman said Lopez defied officers’ commands to put his hands up and step away from the weapon. Instead Lopez grabbed the firearm and raised it, he said.
“Hey, get away from the gun!” officers yelled. “Do not move! Don’t reach for the gun, man. Do not reach the gun.”
Officers believe the body camera footage shows Lopez twice saying the words “shoot me.”
“I don’t know what was going through his head, but he was given ample opportunity to be taken into custody and he wasn’t,” Zimmerman said.
Officers Rivera and Mills both fired their weapons. Lopez fell to the ground and rolled over. Police say he reached for the guns once more. Officer Mills fired one more round, striking Lopez.
“We’re going to need medical for the subject,” one of the officers said, over his radio. “He’s reaching. Don’t reach for it! … His 4-13 is about one foot from his left hand. Don’t!”
Lopez was taken to Sunrise Hospital where he later died at 5:15 a.m.
The two women in the car were not injured. One was Lopez’ girlfriend and the owner of the vehicle. The other was a friend.
Both women on Monday night.
“I remember when we got pulled over they told us to get the **** out of the car, for him to get the **** out of the car. Why don’t I hear that in the video?” said Lopez’s girlfriend, Amber. “He was the best thing in my life… He said, ‘Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me.’ You can’t hear the don’t, but you can hear him. ‘Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me.'”
Assistant Sheriff Brett Zimmerman said 22-year-old Junior Lopez told officers to shoot him, twice.
“I don’t know what was going through his head but he was given ample opportunity to be taken into custody and he wasn’t.”
Lopez’s girlfriend said he was yelling, “Don’t shoot me!”
Lopez’s girlfriend also says officers told him to get out of the car… before they yelled at him to get back in the car. She argues that the first portion was conveniently cut out of the video released today.
“Everything they said is not true,” said Jorge Luis Martinez, Lopez’s father. “The video is not complete. ”
Lopez had one prior charge for false statement to a police officer in North Las Vegas in 2016
Both officers have been employed with Metro since May 2016. They are both assigned to the Community Policing Division Northeast Area Command. They were both placed on routine paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.
How an anti-illegal immigration YouTuber turned a $280 fine into a federal criminal trial
It began as a $280 citation for using a video camera in a courthouse.
But to Gary Gileno, at stake was much more than the couple hundred bucks he was told to pay.
An attorney for the anti-illegal immigration activist and prolific YouTuber told a judge Friday that the four-hour trial over the fine was really about preventing government abuse of power, protecting the rights of journalists and ensuring that citizens can hold public officials accountable.
“If he is convicted … it’ll chill speech, it’ll chill journalism, it’ll say the federal government has a superpower to do whatever it wants,” attorney William Becker said. “This is unprecedented. This is what we expect to see in a police state.”
A federal prosecutor dismissed the rhetoric, arguing the Class C misdemeanor charge was simply about Gileno’s refusal to follow a security officer’s orders.
The unusual legal battle came after Gileno, 32, tried to bring a video camera into a meeting of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission last year. California law specifically allows the public to use recording devices at such meetings, but the commission’s meeting in August was held at a federal appellate court building where filming is prohibited.
Someone just detained at federal courthouse, where public Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission meeting takin place, 4 trying 2 take pic
The commission, a civilian panel set up to monitor the Sheriff’s Department and listen to public concerns about the agency, had been gathering in different locations around the county since it began meeting in January 2017. This was the first time commissioners had met at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals building in Pasadena.
As Gileno entered the courthouse, deputy U.S. marshals told him he had to leave his camera in his car. Gileno insisted he had a right to record the meeting under the First Amendment and the state’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, and began filming the officers.
After Gileno was cited, Robert C. Bonner, a former federal judge who chairs the commission, told The Times he wasn’t aware of certain provisions of the state’s open meetings law and relied on the county’s lawyers for legal advice.
Rather than pay the fine, Gileno opted to take his case to trial, facing a penalty of up to a $10,000 fine and 30 days in jail if found guilty.
Gileno, who began his YouTube career after showing up at his local council meeting in West Covina, said he has made a living off of his channel in recent years. His copious videos — 3,237 and counting — focus primarily on denouncing illegal immigration and promoting supporters of President Trump. His criminal case may have been a boon for his channel — a recent screed on his own prosecution was viewed more than 10,000 times.
On Friday, two court security officers who clashed with Gileno took the stand and testified that there were signs clearly posted saying photography wasn’t allowed in the courthouse. They said Gileno grew belligerent and disruptive, turning on his camera after being warned several times that it was not allowed.
Testifying in his own defense, Gileno said he was a freelance citizen journalist who has attended and filmed local government meetings and legislative town halls for about five years.
“I believe in the United States of America, you should be able to keep tabs on the government,” he said.
In more than 250 other public meetings he attended, he said, he never had an issue with bringing in his video camera. He said the security officer all of a sudden “exploded” at him, so he turned on his camera “to document what I felt was a violation of my rights at the time.”
Assistant U.S. Atty. Benedetto Lee Balding said Gileno’s disruption of security officers working at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was no small matter. It was Gileno who escalated the encounter by refusing to go along with the officers’ orders, he said.
“He decided unilaterally he didn’t have to follow the rules,” the prosecutor said.
Becker, who primarily represents conservatives and Christians in free-speech cases, worked for free on Gileno’s case. He argued that the federal courthouse essentially became a “limited public forum” when it hosted the commission meeting, which Gileno should have been allowed to film under the state law.
Magistrate Judge Jean P. Rosenbluth said she could understand why Gileno was angry and frustrated given his past experience filming the meetings, but she said that didn’t excuse his failure to follow orders. Security at the appellate courthouse, where justices could be filmed without their knowledge, was a serious concern, the judge said.
“Even if these seem arbitrary or don’t make any sense to Mr. Gileno or anybody else, clearly they serve this very important purpose,” Rosenbluth said, finding Gileno guilty.
Acknowledging that a “misunderstanding” had led to the kerfuffle, the prosecutor recommended a sentence of no fine, which would leave Gileno having to pay just $35 in court fees. Rosenbluth said she felt the need for “some consequences” and ordered Gileno to pay a $50 fine, bringing his total penalty to $85 with the fees.
Gileno said he was “outraged” and “astounded.” After the verdict, he turned to nine supporters in the audience, including a man in a red “Make California Great Again” hat, and exclaimed, “I was never read my rights!”
His attorney said they would seriously consider an appeal and possibly a civil lawsuit against the government.
“What the judge just said is if a city council can move to a federal building, they can keep the meeting secret,” Gileno said. “That’s grossly illegal.”