By Madelyn Reese
A San Jose resident faces a restraining order and a winding legal battle with police after they arrested him for legally documenting their activity during a traffic stop.
The man is due in court next month to fight against a restraining order police issued against him—what his attorneys call a delay tactic by City Hall.
On a cold November night in 2018, Nicholas Robinson was driving home when he saw San Jose police officers conducting an arrest on the side of Highway 101.
He pulled over to the side of the road and walked over with a flashlight from his security job.
“Turn your light off… Put your light down,” a police officer says to Robinson in body camera footage from that night.
A body camera video shows Robinson turned his flashlight off.
“Last time I checked I have every right to be here to watch you guys and make sure you guys don’t violate these people’s rights,” Robinson said, gesturing with the end of a large flashlight. One officer grabbed for the light while instructing Robinson to put it away. Then two more officers grabbed Robinson, one on each side of him.
“I was shining a light because it was very dark and it’s hard to see,” Robinson told San José Spotlight. “I could kind of see where they were at, but it was dark and I wasn’t able to see their movements clearly.”
The officers held and lifted Robinson’s arms above his head. An audible “snap” can be heard on the video. He yelled out several times that his arm hurt.
X-Ray imaging later showed police broke Robinson’s left humerus—the upper arm bone connecting to the shoulder.
Robinson sued San Jose and the cops in October 2019, claiming they violated his Fourth Amendment rights and denied him due process. The suit also claims the city is liable for not training the officers properly.
“They were the ones that came to me,” Robinson said. “I didn’t come to them.”
More than a year later, the San Jose Police Department, San Jose Police Officers’ Association and California Highway Patrol all took out restraining orders against Robinson.
Robinson’s hearing to argue against the restraining orders is June 22.
“(Police officers) get in situations where… they get angry and overreact,” said Joseph Farzam, one of Robinson’s attorneys. “But you’re not supposed to (overreact)… as a trained peace officer that’s out there engaging with the public on a daily basis.”
It’s understandable that an incident like what Robinson experienced could instill a fear of cops. But in this case, it appears, law enforcement fear Robinson.
Documents show multiple officers allege Robinson’s behavior to be hostile. An internal bulletin distributed in 2019 warned officers “it is very clear (Robinson’s) intention is to hunt and bait officers into contacting him by purposely cursing and yelling at police officers. He has a strong hatred towards police officers.”
The San Jose Police Department filed a restraining order on Dec. 7 against Robinson, a very rare occurrence. The department reported no other restraining orders against residents. Their restraining order is one of many against Robinson by local law enforcement.
Robinson said he doesn’t hate the police. He said his activities are commonly known as “cop watching,” usually performed by individuals who film and observe law enforcement to ensure no misconduct occurs.
Officers said in declarations that Robinson carries body armor and Tasers, adding to their fear of him. Robinson contends that’s common as a professional security guard.
According to the Civil Liberties Defense Center, people have a First Amendment right to record the police and “public servants performing their public duties in a public place have no right to privacy regarding your right to record their actions.”
However, there are some restrictions, including trespassing to get footage or creating a situation that causes “serious interference” with a police investigation.
The San Jose Police Department did not respond to a request for comment on what kind of cop watching activities they deem permissible.
Robinson has several restraining orders against him from multiple agencies, including the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office, San Jose Police Department, Santa Clara Police Department, California Highway Patrol and the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, more than a year after Robinson’s lawsuit and two years after his initial arrest. The orders were filed Dec. 7 last year.
It’s unclear why they were all filed on the same day.
“If any department or employee has a safety-related concern, our office will be consulted,” said San Jose City Attorney Nora Frimann. “And we will analyze the facts and make a determination with respect to whether the statutory criteria for seeking this type of employer-initiated restraining order are met.”
Each order lasts for three years and requires that Robinson not enter the workplace of anyone on the order without notice or try to contact them.
“Those proceedings were initiated by San Jose,” said Cristin Reak-Zeljak, legal services manager for the city attorney’s office. “The San Jose Police Department does not initiate legal proceedings to obtain restraining orders for protection of police department employees.”
The restraining orders allow some exceptions. Robinson can lawfully enter any police facility except the main police station on West Mission Street. The order also does not apply “if employees of the San Jose Police Department elect to contact respondent as a victim, suspect, witness, or other person of interest to a crime or potential crime” or if the orders conflict with another order given by a police officer.
Robinson’s attorney said the situation didn’t have to go this far.
“They come up with this cover-up story and then their partners back them up,” Farzam said. “Then this poor victim who’s been subject to the police’s misconduct and excessive use of force is now dealing with a report where they’re making him to be the bad guy and now he’s being prosecuted.”
Farzam said the restraining orders are a delay tactic in the legal case.
“Some people are amazing police officers that use the force to help people and serve their community,” Farzam said. “But it’s very easy to get a badge and a gun and get some power, and once you come to power… It’s easy to be seduced by power and not want people to take it away.”
Contact Madelyn Reese at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.
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This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.