A recent lawsuit shows how one community member stood up to the police officers who harassed him during a traffic stop in Menlo Park, a suburban community in California’s San Francisco Bay Area.
Lawyers for investor and entrepreneur Hiruy Amanuel filed a lawsuit in federal court in November 2013 against the Menlo Park Police Department. In the suit, Amanuel alleged that three Menlo Park police officers violated his constitutional rights during two traffic stops earlier in the year.
Amanuel stated that the officers conducted an illegal search and seizure, used racist comments, and tried to intimidate him during stops in January and October 2013. In particular, during the January stop, one officer asked a series of questions that Amanuel says were aimed at intimidating him and his brother, Jammo Amanuel.
A lawyer for Amanuel summarized the significance of his case. “The system only works if someone stands up to it. Hiruy stuck his neck out there to show that the police cannot intimidate someone and get away with it. There was a history of harassment in the Menlo Park Police Department that needed to be brought to light.”
After the suit was filed, one of the officers filed motions for summary judgment—essentially asking the court to rule on the claims presented in the case, without a full trial. However, the court denied several of the officer’s motions, ruling in Amanuel’s favor.
Specifically, the court found that there was “triable issue of fact” regarding Amanuel’s claims of an unlawful search and unreasonable extended seizure—meaning that there was enough evidence to bring these claims to trial for a jury to decide. The court also denied the officer’s motion for summary judgment regarding punitive damages.
Here are details from court records detailing what happened during the January 9, 2013 traffic stop:
According to court documents, Amanuel picked up his brother, Jammo, at about 1 a.m. from downtown Palo Alto, a nearby city. Amanuel drove with his brother in a black Mercedes SL 500 that a Mercedes dealership had loaned to Amanuel, whose vehicle was being repaired.
Court documents state that Amanuel crossed several lanes to make a right turn, and an officer of the Menlo Park Police Department pulled him over. He approached the car and told Amanuel that he had been pulled over for making a right turn from the middle lane in a short distance. The officer asked for Amanuel’s license, and asked Amanuel if he had any alcohol, according to court documents.
After checking Amanuel’s license, the officer asked Amanuel for the car’s registration and dealership information. A police dispatcher told the officer that Amanuel had been arrested before, and the officer asked Jammo for his identification and asked Amanuel if he any prior arrests. Amanuel replied that he had a pending case.
About three and a half minutes into the stop, two additional officers came to the scene, according to court documents. One officer administered a sobriety test to Amanuel, asked to see the car key, and then asked questions about the car’s ownership.
After Amanuel had been stopped for about seven minutes, the officers paused to talk among themselves, and then returned to questioning Amanuel again. When one officer again asked Amanuel whether he had any past arrests, Amanuel asked whether that question was relevant to the stop. Amanuel gave information about a 2009 case, which was resolved. However, the officers questioned him about it for another two minutes or so, according to court records.
Meanwhile, another officer, who was at the police station about a mile and a half away, had heard through the police radio that a warrant check was being performed for Jammo Amanuel, according to court records. The officer had been asked to find contact information for Jammo in order to serve him with a subpoena to testify as a witness in a state court case. When he heard Jammo’s name on the police radio, he drove to the scene. He arrived about 10 minutes into the stop.
Amanuel recognized the officer from a prior case, and according to documents, the officer asked Amanuel a series of pointed questions about the prior case. The officer then asked Jammo for his phone number, and Jammo gave him a number. However, the officer then asked “That phone right there?” and then “Hold up. This one right here?” In a later deposition, the officer stated he did not remember if he had reached into the car and taken Jammo’s phone, but that he “may have” looked through Jammo’s phone for a number or address.
The officer then asked Amanuel for Jammo’s number, and they exchanged words over whether Jammo’s number was stored on Amanuel’s phone. Court documents state that it is unclear who had possession of Amanuel’s phone at this time.
The officer then asked Jammo a series of pointed questions about serving as a witness in the upcoming case, and brought up a previous case in which Jammo had also testified, saying that he shouldn’t lie on the stand—to which Jammo responded that he had never lied. The traffic stop ended about eighteen minutes after the brothers initially were stopped. The officers did not ticket Amanuel.
In November 2013, Amanuel sued the city of Menlo Park, the Menlo Park Police Department, and three of the officers involved in the traffic stop. He later dropped the suit against two of the officers, at which point the remaining officer filed the motions for summary judgment—many of which were denied, as mentioned above. Ultimately, the parties reached a settlement agreement.
Since settling the case, Amanuel believes that he has been subjected to subtle harassment. Frequently, there is an officer parked near his home. At first, Amanuel thought this was a coincidence. However, frequent “chance” encounters with the same group of Menlo Park police officers gave him pause.
As a result, Amanuel has retained legal counsel to prevent these frequent “chance” encounters from developing into a profiling or harassment incident. His attorney team includes Laura Robinson of Law Offices of Laura Robinson and James Cook of Law Offices of John Burris.