Virginia state police pulled Juanisha Brooks’ car over in March. But that was just the beginning of an ongoing legal battle over a “harrowing” 10-hour ordeal that a local prosecutor says never should have happened.
Police say Brooks, 34, was pulled over because a trooper suspected she was driving under the influence. She was arrested and although she passed a breath test, she was charged with other violations and then forced to beg for help to finally get home.
The charges were ultimately dropped after a local prosecutor said the stop was “without proper legal basis” because of a recent change in Virginia law. Now Brooks is calling for the officer involved to be fired and she wants to get her record expunged.
Brooks, who works for the U.S. Department of Defense, was driving home around 2:30 a.m. on March 6 when she saw what she thought were the lights of an ambulance behind her. She told USA TODAY she pulled over to let the vehicle pass and then got back on the road, only to realize the lights were still behind her.
Realizing she was being stopped by police, she pulled over again and grabbed her phone to record and send a text message to her sister letting her know what was happening. She was worried for her life, thinking of other Black motorists like Philando Castile who was killed by police and Sandra Bland who was found dead in a jail cell three days after being arrested during a pretextual traffic stop.
More than 20 million Americans are stopped by police each year, and Black drivers are 20% more likely to get pulled over than white drivers, according to a study from the Stanford Open Policing Project. The Washington Post also reported that Black people accounted for a disproportionate share of traffic-stop deaths in 2015, citing its database of police shootings.
Brooks, who is Black, asked the officer who approached her vehicle why she had been stopped. He told her to get out of the car and he would show her. She told him repeatedly she didn’t want to.
“At this moment, I was very panicked and alarmed,” Brooks said. “All I could think about was am I going to be a hashtag? I don’t want to be another hashtag.”
Dashboard camera video of the arrest shows Virginia State Police Sr. Trooper R.G. Hindenlang open the door of her vehicle and pull her out. He handcuffed her and eventually tells her the stop was for her taillight, because she “took off” and because she was following another vehicle too closely.
“Why were your eyes so watery when I pulled up?” he can be heard saying on the dashboard video.
“Because people are being shot by the police, I’m freaking nervous,” she replies.
Hindenlang asked her if she had been drinking and she told him she had one cocktail two hours earlier. He asked her to take a field sobriety test and she declined.
“I didn’t feel that he would give me a proper test,” she said. “I just thought that it would be a test that I was set up to fail.”
One of the officers at the scene can be heard on the video saying, “It’s a DUI (driving under the influence) for right now. If she blows low then she’s (incomprehensible) for all the traffic violations.”
Brooks was arrested on charges of driving under the influence and taken to Fairfax County Adult Detention Center, where a breath test showed a blood alcohol level of 0.00%, according to a police report.
She was charged with one misdemeanor count of eluding, one misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice, reckless driving and failing to have her headlights on, according to police.
Brooks was released on bond, but her ordeal didn’t end there.
“The rest of the night was harrowing. … I could have been killed finding my way home for five hours,” she said, recalling a case in Los Angeles where a young woman was found dead after being released from jail.
Her car, along with her wallet and cell phone, had been towed to a lot in northern Virginia 30 minutes from the jail. She told the trooper she had no way of getting there, but he said he couldn’t help her.
She pleaded with jail employees and eventually one of them let her use their phone. Another gave her $20 and a ride to the nearest metro station. She got there around 6 a.m. and had to stand outside in 20 degree weather in her dress for an hour until it opened.
After taking several trains and busses, she spent her last of her cash on a cab ride. She said she finally reached her vehicle at 11 a.m. and was able to contact her sister, who hadn’t heard from her since her arrest and “thought that I was dead.”
Soon after the arrest, Brooks hired a lawyer who was able to get the dash camera footage and police report. He sent it to Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano. If the charges were not dropped, she worried she would be fired from her job as a Senior Video Producer at the Department of Defense, which requires top-secret level clearance.
Descano sent a letter to state police saying the stop was “without proper legal basis” because five days prior Virginia banned officers from stopping people over taillights. Descano also requested an internal investigation into the trooper’s actions.
“It’s sickening and unacceptable that any member of our community fears for their safety during a routine traffic stop,” he said in a statement. “That’s why I will not rest until we bring about the day when this is no longer the case.”
Brooks said she also filed a formal complaint and provided USA TODAY with a copy. Virginia state police spokesperson Corinne Geller said Brooks never filed a formal complaint or contacted them directly.
“State police learned about her concerns through a third party and took it upon ourselves to contact her and follow up on her concerns,” Geller said. “It was after that conversation took place that state police self-initiated an internal administrative review and investigation of the traffic stop.”
The administrative investigation is ongoing but neither officer is on administrative leave, according to police. Although the charges were dropped, Brooks said she is still working to have her record expunged.
Brooks is calling for the officer involved in her arrest to be fired and for more to be done to end pretext stops. She said she came forward with her story because she wants others to know their rights.
She still has nightmares about the encounter which she said has caused her emotional distress on “many, many levels.”
“That has affected me greatly, just feeling the trauma of what it means to be a Black person in America driving,” she said. “What was supposed to be a five minute stop ended up being ten hours of complete, unnecessary hell.”