The near–traffic collision should have, at worst, resulted in typical California road-rage bluster: an extended honk of a car horn, possibly an extended middle finger accompanied by expletives, maybe a quick jab to the dashboard. But then-25 year-old Robert Branch’s interstate adversary was no ordinary driver; off-duty sheriff’s detective Paul Ward seemed intent on teaching Branch a lesson.
After the near-miss in traffic, Ward followed Branch for nine miles, leading to an altercation in which Branch was spun into a chokehold by Ward, then arrested by police.
The lesson continues for Branch, who now faces the possibility of years in prison for felony battery against a police officer, threatening to use pepper spray on an officer, resisting arrest, reckless driving, failing to show identification, as well as additional counts.
Local civil rights advocates believe the case is much more than an off-duty detective trying to teach a young, careless driver a lesson. They’re saying Branch’s altercation with Ward, coupled with district attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s unyielding prosecution of him, serves as a warning of how the law-enforcement community and judicial system circle the wagons to protect one of their own, right or wrong.
On May 15, 2015, Branch merged onto westbound Interstate 8 from the 2nd Avenue on-ramp in El Cajon on his way to a girlfriend’s house, who had complained that kids had shot her car with a BB gun. Branch, who was a security guard at the time, brought his tactical vest and pepper spray with him. Upon merging, Branch quickly changed lanes in order to pass a blue Ford Fusion in front of him. The driver of the Ford also switched lanes, cutting Branch off and sending him onto the left shoulder of the freeway. Instead of slowing, Branch sped up, passing the driver of the Ford while driving on the shoulder. A few miles west on Interstate 8, Branch began to hear a knocking sound come from his left rear tire. He exited the freeway at College Avenue and turned right into the neighborhood of Del Cerro; there, he got out of his car to see what was causing the noise.
Moments later, Ward pulled up behind him. Dressed in plain clothes, Ward exited his vehicle and asked to see Branch’s driver’s license and registration. Not seeing a badge, gun, or handcuffs, Branch refused. Ward asked again. This time Branch agreed on the condition that he was going to record the incident on his phone. Branch tapped record on his phone.
“Look, right now, I’m in La Mesa,” Branch said, his voice quivering. (In fact, he was in the city of San Diego.)
Behind him stands Ward, smiling.
Branch looks into the camera and glances back at Ward frantically, “You see this officer, right now, he does not have his lights on?”
Branch winces as Ward grabs his arm.
“You are being detained,” says Ward. “Sit down.”
Grasping his phone, Branch struggles while looking at the camera. “You cannot touch me. You cannot touch me,” he says.
Ward’s arm moves in front of Branch’s throat and into a carotid chokehold. The detective flexes, restricting air to Branch’s brain. Branch faints. His phone falls to the ground but continues to record.
“I told you it was my fault,” Branch yells as he gets up from the ground. “You’re harassing me,” his voice still quivering. “You cannot do that. Your lights aren’t on. You are off-duty. You cannot do that. You cannot grab me like this.”
Branch reached for his pepper spray and aimed it at the detective. Ward reached to retrieve his gun from his ankle holster. Branch dropped the pepper sprray.
“You’re going to put a gun on me? I’m scared of you right now. I think I am going to die. Don’t you know what’s going on in Baltimore..?”
“I don’t care about Baltimore,” responded the detective.
As the men waited for the police to arrive, Branch, still in a chokehold, told Ward that he should have reported the incident to police before stopping him on his own.
“First of all, you didn’t call the police. You didn’t do none of that. You just stepped out of the car,” Branch says. “You call the police and let them know what’s going on. All this choking me and all this stuff, bro…”
Shortly after, police squad cars arrived at the scene, responding to a call from an eyewitness.
In a March 26 Reader interview, weeks before his criminal trial is set to begin, Branch says Ward appeared unhinged.
“I seriously believed they were going to arrest the guy,” Branch explains. “Right when they took me to the patrol car I asked them if he was a cop. I mean, he was so sketchy. After they put me in the backseat he was laughing in my face. I told the officers that I did not trust him one bit. He started waving at me.”
Officers arrested Branch and transported him to the downtown San Diego jail where he stayed for 12 hours.
Without any formal charges against him, Branch hired attorney Dan Gilleon to represent him in a potential civil case. Just in case charges were filed, he sought the counsel of criminal defense attorney Marc Kohnen. With Kohnen’s help, Branch retrieved his cell phone and with it the nine-minute video of the altercation.
In October 2015, Branch sued the County of San Diego, sheriff William Gore, and detective Paul Ward for excessive use of force, battery by a peace officer, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The lawsuit includes testimony from a colleague of Ward’s, detective Mark Karo, who in 2014 filed an internal complaint against Ward for alleged battery. The detective, who was since terminated from the force, told investigators that Ward had hit his shoulder and poked him repeatedly over rumors that Karo was “talking shit” about Ward. Karo complained that Ward had become “increasingly erratic” and “hostile.” The detective warned the investigator that Ward was capable of hurting somebody.
A spokesperson for the sheriff’s department was unable to comment on the outcome of the complaint.
In November 2015, three months after Branch filed his civil complaint and nearly eight months after the incident occurred, district attorney Bonnie Dumanis’s office filed criminal charges against Branch. The complaint charged Branch with a felony count of battery on an officer, a felony for resisting arrest and for threatening to use pepper spray on an officer, and misdemeanor counts for reckless driving and failure to provide a license and registration.
Four months later, in April 2016, the charge was amended to include additional felony charges stemming from a 2013 criminal complaint filed by a female acquaintance of Branch who says he threatened and stalked her. The additional charges appeared despite the fact that in 2013 the district attorney had decided not to pursue the case.
Branch’s criminal defense attorney Kohnen believes the district attorney is attempting to intimidate his client and retaliate against him for filing his civil lawsuit. Kohnen points to the fact that the initial 2013 stalking charges were once treated as a misdemeanor but now have been turned to felony counts. “This case is a clear misuse of prosecutorial discretion and undermines the integrity of the office,” says Kohnen, who took Branch’s case pro-bono. “Resurrecting the 2013 charges, previously rejected for prosecution, was only done as a distraction and to inflame the passions of a jury [to] be more prone to dislike my client at trial.”
As to the battery charges against his client, Kohnen believes that Ward became enraged on the freeway that day. His rage prevented him from calling police to report Branch and instead goaded him to take matters in his own hands.
“You have to think of the eternity of time that Ward had over the course of the nine-mile drive from where the vehicles nearly collided in El Cajon to the Del Cerro neighborhood.”
Kohnen adds. “He had ample opportunity to request for backup to assist with the process and to avoid any confusion. Conversely, think of the extremely brief amount of time Branch had to comprehend the situation before an arm went around his throat and began to choke him.
“Branch is the true victim here. That said, we knew that the District Attorney would never file charges against their own officer in this case.”
The district attorney’s pursuit of Branch goes further. According to court documents obtained by the Reader, the district attorney’s office began to follow Branch and his supporters at rallies, tracking their presence at court hearings, recording their speeches inside churches, and poring over Branch’s and his supporters’ Facebook pages.
Reverend Shane Harris is president of the National Action Network’s San Diego chapter. The 25-year-old pastor from Southeast San Diego has held several rallies for Branch in an attempt to raise awareness about the case.
“This case represents a failure in the criminal and judicial system in having the local district attorney be in charge of investigating local police,” Harris said during a March 24 interview. “It’s a major problem, and we see that so clearly in the Branch case. The district attorney is playing a game with these charges, one that shouldn’t be played, in order to prevent Branch’s civil case from moving forward. They don’t want to be held accountable.”
And while Kohnen and Harris rally against now-former district attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Branch is unsure of his future. “I’m scared, it’s really all I can say. It’s changed my life,” Branch says over the phone, one day before his 27th birthday.
“I don’t want to go to prison for six to nine years for something I didn’t do. I have a daughter that I can’t see. I want to see her grow up. I’m scared. I’m nervous. I don’t know what can happen.”