The preliminary criminal trial of a man who was involved in a near car collision with a plain-clothed San Diego County Sheriff's detective who later followed the driver and choked him out will begin on Wednesday, April 6.
Twenty-seven-year-old Robert Branch faces more than five years in prison for felony obstruction of justice, felony assault on an officer, and three misdemeanors, including not showing proof of insurance or identification over the May 2015 incident. The criminal charges were filed on December 21, 2015, a month after Branch filed a civil suit against the county and detective Ward.
It was on that day in May, as reported by the Reader, that Branch was driving to his job as a security guard when he attempted to pass detective Paul Ward on the westbound on-ramp at Second Street in El Cajon. Ward was driving an unmarked Ford Fusion. Before Branch could pass, Ward allegedly swerved to block him. Branch says he veered onto the shoulder to avoid a collision.
Nine miles away, Branch exited Interstate 8 at College Avenue. He says he pulled into a neighborhood to investigate a sound coming from the rear of his vehicle, likely a result of the near collision. Upon exiting his vehicle, he saw the same Ford Fusion was behind him. Ward did not have sirens or lights on his Ford Fusion. Ward asked Branch for his license and registration. Seeing no evidence that Ward was a police officer, Branch refused. Ward threatened to take Branch to jail. Branch got his cell phone out and began to record the altercation. The altercation was then posted on YouTube.
"Look it, right now, I'm in La Mesa," said Branch looking into the camera on his phone.
Ward enters the screen and stands directly behind Branch smiling as Branch frantically tries to describe the scene.
"You see this officer, right now, he does not have his lights on..."
Ward grabs him.
"You are being detained," says the detective. "Sit down."
Says Branch, "You cannot touch me. You cannot touch me."
Ward turns Branch around and places his forearm around Branch's throat.
Branch begins to gasp for breath. The phone goes dark but continues to record. During this time, the phone records audio of Branch continually accusing Ward of harassing him.
"I told you it was my fault," Branch said of the near collision. "You're harassing me. You cannot do that. Your lights [are] not on. You are off-duty. You cannot do that. You cannot grab me like this."
Branch threatened to spray Ward with his pepper spray if he did not stop. Ward then pulled out his gun.
"You're going to put a gun on me?" Branch screamed. "I'm scared of you right now. I think I am going to die. Don't you know what's going on in Baltimore..."
"I don't care about Baltimore," said Ward.
A few minutes later, San Diego police officers arrived at the scene and arrested Branch for resisting arrest.
In November 2015, Branch brought a civil suit against the sheriff's department and Ward. In the lawsuit, Branch's attorney claimed that Ward was considered by some on the force to be a "loose cannon." In June 2014, a detective had filed a complaint against Ward for alleged battery.
The colleague claimed that Ward had become, according to Branch's lawsuit, "increasingly erratic and that [Ward’s] hostile behavior is progressing."
In December, the district's attorney's office opted to bring charges against Branch. As reported by the Reader, Branch pled not guilty to all five counts.
The district attorney's decision to bring charges resulted in protests, the most recent from Al Sharpton's National Action Network on March 10, 2016. As reported by the Reader, a handful of protesters turned out to rail against the charges.
"'Shame on Bonnie' is the beginning of a movement — we're not done yet," said speaker Shane Harris, the chair of San Diego's chapter of the National Action Network. "We're going to do what we've got to do to drive this hammer in the wall of injustice that Bonnie Dumanis has continued to criminalize black and brown communities of color."
The preliminary trial, expected to last for at least two days, is set to begin on April 6 in Department 11 at the Hall of Justice in downtown San Diego.
(corrected 4/4, 10:10 a.m.)