Marc Kohnen (center), counsel for Branch, with Desiree Smith (far left) and Shane Harris (center right)
A 25-year-old security guard who captured his interaction with a "loose cannon" undercover sheriff's deputy on film last May pleaded not guilty Monday afternoon (December 21) to charges of assaulting an officer.
After a traffic altercation, detective Paul Ward followed Robert Branch for nine miles. Branch said he pulled over to investigate a noise coming from his car, and then Ward stopped and told Branch he was being arrested. Branch began recording the encounter on his mobile phone, vocally objecting to the deputy's attempts to physically restrain him and asking for a uniformed police unit to be dispatched.
Video cuts out when Ward places Branch in a "carotid restraint" and throws him to the ground, though recorded audio of the encounter continues for several minutes. Branch was eventually arrested on felony charges of resisting arrest; at one point Branch pulled a can of pepper spray from his guard equipment and trained it on Ward.
In October, Branch filed suit against Ward and the department, demanding that the department adopt new policies in regard to chokeholds and other neck restraints, and pay "punitive and treble damages."
While Branch pursues his claims, authorities have charged him with felony assault and misdemeanor reckless driving and resisting arrest counts.
"Mr. Branch was victimized on May 12th of this year. Now he's being victimized all over again by the justice system," said Branch's lawyer Marc Kohnen at a press conference before the court appearance. "This should not be a criminal case; however, we're going to plead not guilty to assaulting an officer when, in fact, Paul Ward was the malefactor. Paul Ward assaulted Mr. Branch. We look forward to defending this case and taking it to trial."
At the Lemon Grove conference, organized by a local chapter of Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the group promised to pursue not only victories in the conflicting Branch cases but a greater reform of police policies throughout the region.
"My story is that my son was at school when a girl's phone came up missing. In the midst of a search, they found a lighter in his backpack — when they snatched the backpack from him, he jumped back, which caused him to be slammed against a wall, into the ground, placed into a chokehold, and tasered in the back," said Desiree Smith, recounting her family's unrelated allegations of misconduct by police in San Diego. "As his mother, I wasn't notified of what happened on the school grounds until he was already en route to juvenile hall.
"Earlier in the day he had ditched school and was drinking — they want to focus on that, on the victim's indiscretions rather than whether police are using excessive force with citizens. This has to stop, now. My son survived a chokehold, but if this continues will yours?"
Shane Harris, local network president, repeated the call for reform.
"There has got to be justice not just for Robert, but for every person suffering injustice stemming from misconduct in policing," said Harris. "We call upon the sheriff's department, and on Sheriff Gore, to terminate or take disciplinary action against Paul Ward, who is clearly wrong in the way he handled himself in this case. The video speaks for itself."
If convicted, Branch faces up to four years in prison. A preliminary hearing is tentatively set to occur next March, with Branch remaining free on his own recognizance until then.