San Diego CA June 24 2017 A security guard who was confronted and restrained by a plainclothes sheriff’s detective on a residential street two years ago was acquitted Friday of all charges related to the 2015 incident.
Robert Branch III, 27, faced felony and misdemeanor charges including resisting an officer by force, attempting to spray the detective with pepper spray and failing to provide his driver’s license and registration.
After deliberating about two days, a San Diego Superior Court jury announced Thursday evening that it had reached decisions in the case.
The verdicts were read Friday morning.
Branch, seated next to his lawyer at the defense table, was visibly relieved when he heard the news. Outside the courtroom, his supporters greeted both him and the jurors with applause.
“It’s been a journey for me, I’ve been going through so much,” he told reporters. “I can still feel my heart pounding.”
He thanked the jury, and his lawyer Marc Kohnen, adding that he planned to go home and hug his 1-year-old daughter.
“I’m just happy the jury saw it the same way we have all along,” Kohnen said.
“I don’t want to take any credit because the facts were the facts, and Mr. Branch had unreasonable force used upon his person,” the attorney continued. “I’m just glad we were able to present it in a format that resonated with the jury.”
The incident occurred May 4, 2015, when both men were driving west on Interstate 8. Branch was driving a gold Infiniti sedan. Detective Paul Ward was in an unmarked Ford Fusion.
According to evidence presented in trial, Branch sped past Ward in the fast lane, even driving onto the shoulder of the road.
The two cars continued driving along I-8, until Ward noticed the Infiniti getting off the freeway at the College Avenue exit. Eventually, both cars ended up on Lambda Drive in the Del Cerro neighborhood.
Ward, who has more than 27 years’ experience in law enforcement, got out of his car and approached Branch. He identified himself as a sheriff’s detective and displayed his badge. (The defense argued that Ward was too far away for Branch to see it clearly.)
The detective could see that Branch was wearing a black tactical vest with the word “security” on it, and decided to do a pat-down search to look for weapons.
Branch, who had his driver’s license in his hand, went back into his car to retrieve his cellphone and began recording their interaction. Branch can be heard in the video saying that the detective was “off duty” and Branch didn’t have to comply with his orders.
(Ward was on duty, but would have had the same authority to question or detain him if he was off duty, the prosecutor said.)
About 12 seconds after the video starts, Ward puts Branch in what the prosecutor referred to as a “carotid restraint,” which law enforcement officers are permitted to use to subdue a suspect.
The defense lawyer described it as an illegal “arm-bar chokehold,” noting the position of the detective’s arm around Branch’s neck as shown in the video.
Branch is rendered unconscious for a few seconds and drops the phone, but it continues recording sound.
“Sheriff’s Department, can you call the police please,” Ward says to a bystander.
Branch also speaks to the bystander, telling him: “Call the police right now!”
The two men continue to struggle, with Branch saying: “This is not detained. This is abuse… Get off my neck. You’re choking me right now!”
And later, “I’m going to spray you if you don’t let go.”
The bystander called police, who arrived moments later.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Runyon had argued that the situation would not have escalated if Branch had complied with the detective’s orders and immediately handed over his license and registration.
But Kohnen contended the detective did not follow his training when he failed to call for a uniformed officer to respond to the situation after following Branch on the freeway for nearly 10 miles.
When Branch realized what was happening, the attorney said, he feared for his life. That’s why he pulled out his cellphone and started recording.
“If it wasn’t for that video, I’d probably be locked up right now,” Branch said after the verdicts.
Branch still faces a felony stalking charge. According to the prosecution, Branch made repeated phone calls to a young woman in 2013, and sent her dozens of text and voicemail messages.
The defense attorney has said he believes the District Attorney’s Office would not have filed the charge if not for the incident with the sheriff’s detective.
Judge Laura Halgren scheduled a status conference for Thursday, when the attorneys will discuss how to proceed.
Branch filed a federal lawsuit in October 2015 against Ward, who is now retired, and the county alleging excessive force, battery by a peace officer and other claims. The lawsuit is still pending.
San Diego Tribune