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ACLU sues Bakersfield police over arrest of black passenger in car stopped for dangling air freshener

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the Bakersfield Police Department, claiming its officers unlawfully jailed a black man after they stopped the car he was riding in because the vehicle had an air freshener dangling from its rearview mirror.

The March 17 arrest of Robert Mitchell occurred when police officers demanded the identity of every person in the vehicle and Mitchell initially balked at the request.

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The ACLU Foundations of Southern and Northern California allege Mitchell's constitutional rights were violated by the officers.

The suit, which was filed Friday, alleges that "officers actually stopped the car with the intention of detaining the car’s occupants — all of whom were black — to investigate them without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. In other words, the stop was a racially discriminatory pre-textual stop."

Mitchell was jailed for 12 hours, but never charged with a crime.

“Mitchell dared to challenge the officers on their unconstitutional demands, and for that he was handcuffed, arrested and spent a night in jail," said Novella Coleman, staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. "The courts should make it clear that unlawful actions by the Bakersfield Police Department will not be tolerated."

City officials said they had not been served with the lawsuit and therefore could not respond.

Mitchell was arrested by officers Ronnie Jeffries and John Bishop. They said they stopped the car for enforcement of state vehicle code violations, including having an air freshener on the rearview mirror. ACLU lawyers said in court documents that the air freshener was not a valid basis for a stop under California law.

The suit alleges the officers then questioned the driver and passengers, including Mitchell. Mitchell asserted his right to not give his name or other information and made clear that he was not suspected of a crime. The lawsuit alleges the officers violated his 4th and 5th Amendment rights by demanding information and threatening to impound the car if Mitchell did not identify himself. Mitchell, who did not want his friend’s car impounded, eventually agreed to provide his full name but also asked for a supervisor.

The suit alleges that when a sergeant supervisor arrived, he told Mitchell he had two choices: give further information or go to jail. When Mitchell replied that he had already given his name, he was promptly handcuffed and arrested. Mitchell recorded some of the interaction on video, until officers ordered him out of the car. At that point, the suit alleges, an officer grabbed his wrist, twisted his arm behind his back, grabbed Mitchell's phone and handcuffed him. He was jailed overnight for 12 hours.

Mitchell said he did nothing more than assert his rights. “All I was doing was expressing my rights, and I went to jail for that,” Mitchell said. “Justice is overdue in this community. People are demanding changes to our police department.”

The department, along with the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, is already the subject of a civil rights investigation by the California attorney general. Last year, an ACLU examination of the department found “a disturbing pattern of shootings, beatings and canine attacks” in recent years, many of which involved unarmed suspects.

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