Jan 2, 2024 - News

Outspoken bystanders influential in DA dropping Bojangles arrest charges

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Video screengrab via CMPD

Accounts from witnesses who spoke out immediately after the viral arrest outside a Bojangles in November were among multiple reasons charges were ultimately dropped, Mecklenburg County’s district attorney told Axios.

Why it matters: Bystander accounts can play an important role in the criminal justice system.

  • In this case, public outcry followed when the videos emerged showing police striking a woman. Because cell phone videos often wind up on the Internet, they can also draw attention to certain cases.

What they’re saying: “We ask people all the time to help keep our community safe, to talk to police, tell us what you saw, give us your phone number, so that we can find you should a case actually come,” DA Spencer Merriweather said in a recent interview. “In this case, people did it. All of us have an obligation to listen to them.”

  • Merriweather watched about three-and-a-half hours of police body camera video, including recorded testimonies, before deciding to dismiss the case, he told Axios.

Catch up quick: In November, police confronted two people, Christina Pierre and Anthony Lee, as they were sitting on a bus bench in the Steele Creek area. Police suspected they were smoking marijuana; Pierre and Lee have said it was a legal THC product. The confrontation escalated when police attempted to detain 37-year-old Lee.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department reported Pierre, 24, hit an officer, who then punched her in the face. The department acknowledged officers struck her multiple times in the leg, reportedly to gain compliance.

  • Both Pierre and Lee were charged with resisting arrest. Pierre also faced assault on a government official.
  • After a CMPD internal investigation, one officer was suspended for 40 hours because he was still hitting Pierre after her hands were behind her back.
  • The actions of six other officers were deemed justified.

[Go deeper: Charlotte police release body cam videos of viral arrest, 1 officer suspended for 40 hours]

“What the officers did, I think meets those constitutional obligations as far as the letter of the law,” Merriweather told Axios. “That does not necessarily mean that a judge sustains them.”

  • Merriweather said a trial would likely be unsuccessful if it went before a jury because of constitutional objections and other dynamics in the case.

What they were saying: An 11-plus-hour package of police body camera footage from the recent incident outside Bojangles includes witnesses giving statements to police.

  • One restaurant customer said it was wrong for officers to handcuff Lee without a clear explanation, and she said she was begging officers to stop hitting Pierre. She accused officers of kneeing Pierre “as hard as they can” while she was on the ground.
  • “I realize she was resisting arrest,” she said, then added, “What was done to her was completely uncalled for, and I’ll go to court and testify for her.”
  • A different bystander described how an officer “slammed the girl” and bruised her face.

The other side: CMPD Johnny Jennings said in a press conference in December that he is disappointed in the district attorney’s decision to drop charges.

  • “To allow for somebody to punch an officer in the face and have absolutely zero repercussions in the legal system … is an insult to our officers,” Jennings said.
  • In an edited narration of body camera footage, CMPD included cell phone video of the altercation. A person behind the camera is heard stating, “I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to do that to police.”

Zoom in: The incident has some questioning whether officers should have approached the couple for marijuana to begin with. People arrested in Mecklenburg County for simple possession of drugs tend to have their charges dropped. In November 2020, to deal with a COVID backlog, the district attorney’s office began to dismiss charges for controlled substances unless there was a public safety reason not to.

  • Merriweather said this approach has empowered his office to concentrate on violent criminals and drug traffickers, which is important given the prevalence of fentanyl.
  • But the DA stressed this policy is only for his office, not for other law enforcement agencies.
  • “My constitutional obligation requires me to figure out a way to prioritize how cases come through our office,” he said. “Police whose obligation is to patrol our streets is different than mine.”

Flashback: This isn’t the first time witnesses’ cell phone videos have played a key role in how certain cases play out in Charlotte. In 2016, videos came out from people who were at the scene when CMPD shot a man named Keith Lamont Scott. Seen around the world, the videos spread awareness of what was happening here.

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