One night last June, police stopped Portland bike activist "Reverend" Phil Sano for not having a bike light. Sano flailed his arms at the cops and wound up on the ground, Tasered multiple times and cited for resisting arrest.
The incident ["Night Light Fight," News, June 19, 2008] sparked outrage among Portland's bicycling community, which was vindicated on Wednesday, February 11, when a jury cleared Sano of the charge. Sano's trial hinged on two questions: what sorts of actions qualify as resisting arrest, and whether the arresting officers properly identified themselves.
Several undisputed facts emerged at trial: Portland Police Bureau Officers Erin Smith and Ron Hoesly were writing a missing bike light ticket to cyclist Diana Spartis when Sano cruised by on his own light-less ride. Officer Smith yelled out at Sano, "Hey buddy, could you come over here for a second?" followed by "Stop!" three times. Smith then chased down Sano and pulled him from his bike, knocking off Sano's glasses.
Witness accounts differed on what happened next, but every witness who took the stand during the trial agreed that things got ugly fast.
"He's standing there, cursing at us, yelling and screaming, he's out of control, foaming at the mouth," recalled Officer Smith, who decided to Taser Sano.
Sano says he did not realize Smith, who was wearing a dark navy blue traffic cop's uniform, was an officer until after he was reeling from the Taser shock. Smith says that he called out, "Hey buddy" rather than "Stop! Police!" because he was initially trying to approach Sano in a "really friendly, non-hostile way."
During his closing statement, Public Defender John Gutbezahl argued that Sano's "tantrum" did not count as knowingly resisting arrest.
"He wasn't resisting arrest," said Gutbezahl. "He was on the ground getting juiced by the Taser!"
The jury took two hours to decide in Sano's favor.
"What I hope comes from all this is that the police do a better job of identifying their job and their purpose," says Gutbezahl. Sano agrees.
"Whenever a member of the population doesn't take the time to fight for certain causes, those causes get lost," said Sano after he heard the verdict. "Police need to... treat the people they're dealing with, [with] respect."