Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dibor Roberts gets a hearing in Phoenix magazine

Dibor Roberts, the Cottonwood woman brutalized by Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Jeff Newnum during a traffic stop along a deserted stretch of road, gets a nice write-up in Phoenix magazine. Importantly, author Jana Bommersbach notes that, in continuing along the road toward a better-lit, more heavily populated area, Roberts was doing exactly what Sheriff Steve Waugh advised people to do -- advice that has been recorded and is available on the Web. Despite heeding that advice, she was forced from the road by a law-enforcement officer, had her window smashed in and was dragged from the vehicle. She ended up with a felony conviction on her record.

So much for heeding official advice.

There was a witness at the scene of the confrontation -- Colin Bass -- about whom Bommersbach points out some troubling facts.
By then, passerby Colin Bass of Rimrock drove up, noted the open SUV door and thought the officer might need help. The police report from that night says this: “Bass said he drove by the police SUV and saw glass on the street. Bass said he then saw a police officer attempting to pull a female out of a vehicle…. Bass said Roberts was resisting and being combative.”

That was about all the original police report said about Bass, although his story would get more elaborate and suspicious: Bass, who claims to be a stranger to the officer, says that since Newnum had both hands busy pulling Roberts from the car, he took the flashlight from the officer’s belt, next to his gun, to signal any oncoming car. Even Newnum says a passerby “used my flashlight to assist in traffic control.”

OK, I’m not a police officer, but I know enough officers to know none of them would ever allow anyone to get near their weapon. (A veteran officer I know said this scenario is “absurd.”)

Eventually, Bass would embroider his story to back up the officer’s claim that this was a woman intentionally fleeing from a cop. Significantly, he would claim to hear her on her cell phone asking her husband how to get away – the same thing Sergeant Newnum testified he heard.

But the evidence shows this isn’t true.

First, Bass didn’t even arrive on the scene until the window was already smashed and the cell phone was in the gravel. Second, if Newnum couldn’t hear her “inaudible” screams through the closed window, how could he hear her cell phone conversation? But most significantly, cell phone records from that night show Dibor Roberts made no calls during the time of the altercation. Her husband’s cell phone records show he received no calls, either. Even Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh admitted records show there was “no attempt to call her husband or call 9-1-1.” (Regrettably, Roberts’ attorney didn’t even bring up the cell phone records during the trial. Duh.)

But curiously, Bass did testify to something everybody else wanted to deny. Both Newnum and his sheriff insisted there was no reason to believe Roberts didn’t know there was a legitimate cop trailing her – that she was just avoiding arrest. But Bass said he heard Dibor Roberts, again and again, telling the officer she “was trying to get to the lights.” He heard her repeatedly ask the officer, “Why are you doing this? I did what I was supposed to do.”

This makes Bass a most curious witness: He clearly lied to help the officer but also said the one thing the Yavapai County Attorney’s Office didn’t want anyone to believe – that this woman was only trying to get to a lighted area for her own safety.

The Phoenix piece comes at an important moment -- as Dibor Roberts and her husband Merrill try to recruit an attorney to appeal Dibor's sentence. The Roberts family doesn't have the $15,000-$25,000 they're being quoted, and have had no luck convincing an attorney to take the case pro bono.

That likely leaves Dibor Roberts with a felony conviction on her record -- and therefore unable to use the nursing degree toward which she has been working.

That is, unless sufficient publicity can swing support and funds in her direction.

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Arizona 'right to light' sought by Dibor Roberts supporters

Dibor Roberts and her supporters, as part of their continuing effort to ensure that Dibor Roberts's ordeal at the hands of an out-of-control police officer is never repeated, have launched the A Woman's Right to Light campaign.

For those not in the know: Roberts was driving along isolated Beaverhead Flat Road at night in rural Yavapai County, Arizona, when a car with flashing red and blue lights attempted to pull her over. Concerned by reports of police impersonators, Roberts decided to follow the advice of many law enforcement agencies, including the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office, to slow down, proceed to a well-lit, populated area, and then pull over.

Unfortunately, Sergeant Jeff Newnum quickly flew into a rage, forced Roberts's car off the road, smashed her window and dragged her from the vehicle.

For following Sheriff Waugh's own advice, Roberts was eventually found guilty of resisting arrest and flight from a police officer and sentenced to six months of unsupervised probation. It turned out that the recommendations have no legal force -- civilians follow them at their own risk.

The A Woman's Right to Light Website allows visitors to sign the following petition:

"We, the undersigned, call on the Arizona Legislature to pass a law that states that a woman has the right to drive to a lighted, populated area when being stopped by law enforcement at night, for her safety and that of the officer. The woman would be required to signal the officer by turning on her hazard lights and reducing her speed to a specified limit to communicate her intention to stop in a lighted area. Such a law would be included on the state motor vehicle website and in all materials published for driver's education."

Personally, given the reality not just of police impersonators but also of rogue cops, I think the right to light should apply to everybody. But the legislation advocated by the campaign strikes me as a step in the right direction.

See: A Woman's Right to Light

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Dibor Roberts denied justice

The jury in the Dibor Roberts case returned a verdict that I can only describe as contemptible, finding her guilty of resisting arrest and felony flight from a law officer as a result of a brutal attack upon her by Sgt. Jeff Newnum of the Yavapai County Sheriff's Department.

Greg Nix of Larson newspapers has an interesting insight, suggesting that the trial could have come down to the prosecution painting a picture for the jury of "'angry black woman' v. 'respectable white officer.'" He adds, "I grew up in the South so running the 'angry black woman' strategy is nothing new and generally works for getting convictions."

Perhaps he's right, and the decision was essentially racist. Or maybe the prosecution succeeded in picking jurors who bow down and bang their heads on the floor every time they see a uniformed government employee. Or the result could have resulted from a little bit of both factors.

An appeal is possible, of course. Also, the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP has asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene, and Roberts reportedly plans to sue, so she may yet get a measure of justice in this case.

But it bothers me that a creature like Jeff Newnum, who apparently has so little control over his emotions and such an inflated sense of his place in the world, probably walked out of the courtroom feeling vindicated, with a license to assault the people of Yavapai County.

Update: Dibor Roberts was sentenced to six months unsupervised probation. Her attorney, Stephen Renard, said, "This is flat out the lightest sentence I have ever seen for a Class-5 felony, period." That suggests Judge Michael Bluff may have had reservations about the prosecution or the severity of the "offense" committed by Roberts -- especially since he reduced the resisting arrest charge from a Class-6 felony to a Class-1 misdemeanor.

But she still has a conviction on her record.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

'I wanted to get control'

That's the claim of Sgt. Jeff Newnum of the Yavapai County, Arizona, Sheriff's Department, as the trial of Dibor Roberts on charges of ticking off a polic-- ... err ... felony counts of resisting arrest and unlawful flight from a law officer gets under way.

"My only concern was to gain control of the situation." He used his collapsible baton to break out the rear passenger window and opened the front door.

Roberts at that time was yelling, "No. No. No. You can't do this to me." He said he could hear the words clearly, but did not understand, he said.

By this time Newnum did "not view her attacking" him and "did not consider she would overpower me. But, I wanted to get control."

So, before he smashed Roberts's car window and snatched her cell phone, he didn't regard her as any sort of threat. He just wanted "control."

This reinforces my initial impression that Sgt. Newnum's assault on Dibor Roberts has its roots in ... well ... a power trip. Despite the fact that police departments regularly advise motorists concerned about the legitimacy of the officer attempting to pull them over to "continue to a public place that is well lighted," and that Newnum's own boss, Sheriff Steve Waugh, has himself offered similar advice, Newnum blew his stack when Roberts slowed and continued along the dark road toward a more heavily trafficked area. By his own words, he was seeking to assert "control" when he forced her car off the road and initiated his attack.

Even assuming that Dibor Roberts was wrong to fear a police impersonator of the sort that pulled over two teenage girls in Phoenix in March, just when did Americans become obligated to give uniformed government employees "control?"

Greg Nix, a reporter for Larson Newspapers, who attended the first day of the trial has some interesting comments here:

[Dibor Roberts's attorney Stephen] Renard is talented when it comes to the leading question and getting people all tangled up in what they are saying.

He clearly tripped Newnum up by referring him back to his testimony before the Yavapai County Grand Jury, showing that 6 months ago, Newnum couldn't remember if Roberts tried to drive away or if in the tussle her foot came off the brake and "ran him over," as compared to today, when Newnum was clear on it and said that Roberts definitely tried to drive away or run him over.

He almost got Newnum to acknowledge he couldn't state definitively that Roberts actually injured him. Newnum recovered when he came back with a quick statement after a couple seconds of silence, "Except she caused this whole incident."

Renard got Newnum to acknowledge that Newnum believed his own wife should drive to a lighted area if she is concerned for her safety, but not Roberts, in this instance.

Nix, a former investigator with Arizona Child Protective Services, adds that he thinks Newnum "got into a situation that he didn't know how to manage."

Except by violently asserting control, of course.

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

NAACP joins Dibor Roberts case

Family reasons (fatigue from chasing after a 2 1/2-year-old) kept me away from the rally for Dibor Roberts at Windmill Park in Cornville. But I'm happy to see that somebody rather more important than me did make it: the Rev. Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County Chapter of the NAACP. He has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the case and determine if Roberts's civil rights were violated in the course of her harrowing encounter with Sergeant Jeff Newnum.

Since the NAACP is now involved, I'll say that I have yet to see evidence that racism was at the root of Newnum's misconduct on the night of July 29, 2007. It could be a matter of bigotry, but I suspect that Newnum didn't even know that Roberts was black until he'd forced her car off the road.

More likely, I think, Newnum was acting in accord with the common mindset among police officers that says that police are due instant and complete obedience at all times by members of the public. We've seen evidence of that attitude repeatedly and, increasingly, on video, in instances where civilians have hesitated or -- worse -- asked questions during encounters with the forces of law and order. Police now act like occupation troops, and those of us lacking badges and uniforms are expect to be dutifully submissive as members of a subject population.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Sergeant Newnum flew into a rage over the fact that a mere civilian looked for a safe place to pull over rather than instantly coming to a halt along a dark, deserted road.

But it's beyond doubt that Dibor Roberts's rights were violated, and I'm encouraged to see an organization with the clout and resources of the NAACP come to her assistance.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Dibor Roberts rally

"A Woman's Right to Light" Rally for Dibor

Community members from throughout Arizona's Verde Valley are organizing a rally to support Dibor Roberts, the 48-year-old Cottonwood woman pulled over for speeding by a Yavapai County Sheriff's officer in July 2007 around 10:40pm on Beaverhead Flats Road on her way home from her nursing assistant's job at Sedona Winds in the Village of Oak Creek. The Friends of Dibor seek justice for Dibor Roberts and all women, and want the County to recognize "A Woman's Right to Light" -- the right of a woman to get to a lighted area before stopping. The Roberts case goes to trial in mid-May.

The rally will take place on Sunday, May 4 at 3pm at Windmill Park on Cornville Road in downtown Cornville. Included in the rally will be speakers from the community, music, tee shirts, a bake sale and door prizes to raise funds for Dibor's defense.

Note: The above is drawn from a press release issued by the ad-hoc committee supporting Dibor Roberts (links added by yours truly) in anticipation of her May 14-16 trial on felony charges of unlawful flight from a law officer and resisting arrest.

Of additional interest is the revelation in the latest news story about the Roberts case that the day after Dibor Roberts was arrested, a warrant was issued for the arrest of her husband Merrill "apparently as an accomplice to the unlawful flight charge that had been leveled against Dibor." The warrant was based on nothing more than the assumption that Dibor had been talking on her cell phone with her husband when an enraged Sergeant Jeff Newnum drove her off the road, smashed her window and snatched the phone from her hands. The warrant was quashed only when phone records revealed that Dibor Roberts never completed a call to her husband or to 911 -- unsurprising considering the violent circumstances and the spotty cell coverage in that area.

Think about that. While a phone conversation never occurred in this instance, the police apparently consider it a criminal act for a man to counsel his frightened wife when she's pursued by somebody she fears may be impersonating a police officer. That's outrageous.

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Monday, April 7, 2008

Motions rejected in Dibor Roberts case

In the case of Dibor Roberts, the woman charged with several felonies after being assaulted by a Yavapai County sheriff's deputy on a dark, deserted road, Judge Michael Bluff has rejected three motions filed by the defense. Roberts is now set to go to trial May 14-16.

The controversy in the case surrounds Roberts's decision to continue driving several miles to a well-lit area to make sure the car pulling her over was actually a police car after Sergeant Jeff Newnum attempted to pull her over for speeding. An enraged Newnum smashed Roberts's window and dragged the woman from her car once he drove her off the road. This despite the fact that she was following advice published on some police department Websites and repeated by Sheriff Steve Waugh during a press conference. According to the Verde Independent:

Waugh said that if someone is concerned an officer may not be legitimate, he or she should move to a well-lighted area. But, he cautioned that in some areas of the county, there are "25 to 75 miles between well-lighted areas." Make sure to signal or acknowledge the officer and roll down the window enough to hear."

That Roberts's fears were not paranoia was demonstrated just last month and a mere 100 miles from her arrest.

A police impersonator conducted a traffic stop on two teenage girls last month, Phoenix police said.

The girls were pulled over by a white Crown Victoria with a light system shortly before 11 p.m. on March 21.

Believing the Crown Victoria was a real police car, the 14-year-old driver pulled into the parking lot of the Desert Sky Mall.

Police said Michael Escobar, 33, got out of the flashing car wearing a "police-type uniform" with a bullet-proof vest and a gun belt equipped with Mace, handcuffs and a handgun.

Yavapai County is now in the difficult position of prosecuting a woman for acting in accordance with advice offered by its own sheriff for dealing with real-world fears of criminals pretending to be police.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Motions pending in Dibor Roberts case

Via Merrill Roberts, husband of Dibor Roberts, comes word that three motions in the case of the woman assaulted by a Yavapai County, Arizona, sheriff's deputy will be decided on Friday, April 4 at 9am at the Verde Valley Justice Center court house. One motion would send the case back to the grand jury to hear -- live this time -- the testimony of a witness to last summer's altercation. Another motion would dismiss the "resisting arrest" charge. The third would compel the deposition of Deputy Jeff Newnum, who has been ducking the procedure by claiming "victim's rights" under Arizona law.

At this time, Dibor Roberts's trial is set for May 14-16.

Judge Michael Bluff can be contacted at:

Camp Verde Justice Facility
3505 West Highway 260
Camp Verde, AZ 86322

Update: The latest news story: "Motions argued in Dibor Roberts case"

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Friday, March 7, 2008

Dibor Roberts to go to trial

Dibor Roberts, the woman accosted by Yavapai County, Arizona, sheriff's Sergeant Jeff Newnum on a dark country road, will go to trial on April 23, 24, and 25. She is charged with felony counts of resisting arrest and unlawful flight from a law officer. "Resisting arrest" apparently consisted of not submitting fast enough when Newnum smashed her window and dragged her from her car. (Note: I now have a copy of the police report, and Newnum's actions don't get any prettier when rendered in his own words.)

The county is under pressure in this case, facing unaccustomed protests and public scrutiny. That may have been the prosecution's motivation for offering to reduce the charges to misdemeanors if Roberts agreed to a guilty plea. Roberts declined.

That's a rare and courageous move on the part of Dibor Roberts -- to stand by her innocence and risk a potential felony conviction. Nationally, only 5 percent to ten percent of defendants plead not guilty. Most accept a deal and go straight into the system. Note, that doesn't mean that 90 percent to 95 percent of the accused are necessarily guilty. As law Prof. Stephen Schulhofer told PBS:

The major problem with plea bargaining is that it forces the party into a situation where they have to take a guess about what the evidence is, about how strong the case might be, and they have to make that guess against the background of enormously severe penalties if you guess wrong. So defendants, even if they have strong defenses, and even if they are innocent, in fact face enormous pressure to play the odds and to accept a plea. And the more likely they are to be innocent, and the more strong their defenses are, the bigger discount and the bigger benefits the prosecutor will offer them. Eventually at some point it becomes so tempting that it might be irresistible, especially when the consequences of guessing wrong are disastrous.

The "discount" the prosecution offered Dibor Roberts was substantial -- misdemeanor convictions with far less serious ramifications than felony convictions, which can result in substantial prison time as well as potential loss of some civil rights. It seems the county wants this case to go away, but without losing face.

Of course, if County Attorney Sheila Polk really wants this case to go away, she could just instruct her people to drop all charges.

Let's help her make that decision by leaning on her a little bit. Let Ms. Polk know that the public scrutiny isn't going to disappear. County Attorney Sheila Polk's office can be reached by phone at:

(928) 771-3344

Or by snail mail:

255 East Gurley Street
Prescott, AZ 86301

Read more about this case here.

Dibor Roberts and her husband Merrill tell their tale on their Website here.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Dibor Roberts update

If Dibor Roberts or any of her supporters is reading this blog, please contact me at jd(at) I've been approached by a civil right attorney interested in discussing the possibility of taking the Roberts case on a pro bono basis. I'll be happy to put you in touch.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Attacked by a cop on a dark road

On the night of July 29, 2007, Dibor Roberts, a Senegalese-born American citizen living in Cottonwood, Arizona, was driving home from her job as a nurse's aide at an assisted living center located in the Village of Oak Creek, an unincorporated community near Sedona. Along Beaverhead Flat Road, an unlit, unpopulated route through the desert, she suddenly saw flashing lights in her rearview mirror. Fearful of stopping on a deserted stretch of pavement, especially in light of reports she'd heard of criminals impersonating police, she decided to proceed to a populated area before stopping the car, the nearest such area being Cornville, an unincorporated settlement along the road to Cottonwood. She slowed her car to acknowledge the flashing lights and continued to drive. Her decision wasn't especially unusual -- in fact, it's recommended by some police departments. The Goodyear, Arizona, Police Department offers the following advice on its Website:

If you are in doubt about the vehicle with flashing red and blue emergency lights that is attempting to stop you, there are several things you can do:

If in an isolated area, continue to a public place that is well lighted. While doing this, obey all traffic laws and do not speed up to get there.

If you have a cellular phone, and can use it safely, call the police and let them know that an unmarked vehicle is attempting to stop you.

On Cornville Road, well before the populated area, Sheriff's Sergeant Jeff Newnum apparently tired of waiting for Roberts to reach a settled area. While he was, in fact, a police officer, he now proceeded to justify every fear an American may have about rogue cops. He raced his cruiser in front of Roberts's car, forcing her off the road. He then smashed her driver's-side window with his baton and grabbed a cellphone she was using to check his identity. Accounts vary at this point. While police deny it, the press has reported that Newnum dragged Roberts from her vehicle, threw her to the ground, and handcuffed her while driving his knee into her back.

All of this because she was going 15 miles over the speed limit on a deserted rural road.

Roberts's treatment has been, unsurprisingly, controversial in Arizona's Verde Valley. In a sparsely settled area not known for protests of any kind, 30 supporters showed up at her December 31, 2007 scheduling conference in Judge Janis Sterling's courtroom in Prescott, the county seat. This was the second such hearing, since all charges against Roberts had previously been dropped on November 2, 2007.

Roberts faces two felonies charges: unlawful flight from a law officer and resisting arrest. Resisting arrest? Well, Sergeant Newnum apparently injured himself while breaking into Roberts's car.

But Sergeant Newnum doesn't stand alone. Yavapai County Sheriff Steve Waugh may be many things, but disloyal to his troops isn't one of them. Amidst mounting protests and public outrage, Waugh held a press conference on January 15 to defend his hot-headed officer's abuse of a scared woman on a lonely road. He voiced his full support for Newnum, faulting the sergeant only for cutting off Roberts to force her to the side of the road. Waugh also implied that Roberts was chemically impaired -- the first time such an allegation has surfaced long months after she was taken into custody, and one that has never surfaced in the form of formal charges.

In other words, smashing Roberts's car window and dragging her out of a vehicle because he was impatient is A-OK by the good sheriff.

Dibor Roberts now faces felony convictions and prison time all because she was scared by an unexpected confrontation on a dark and deserted road. As it turned out, she had more reason to be afraid than she knew.

Sergeant Newnum is still roaming the roads of Yavapai County, comfortable in the knowledge that he can abuse innocent people and still enjoy the support of Sheriff Steve Waugh.

And the people of Yavapai County? Well, we're all well-advised to approach any encounter with a Sheriff's deputy with the idea that we'll have to fight in self-defense. Sometimes, vicious thugs don't impersonate police officers -- they are police officers.

Sheriff Steve Waugh can be reached at:

phone: (928) 771-3260

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