VCU pays $10K for improper police stop on veteran with bullhorn

RICHMOND, Va. – Do you believe you have the right to talk trash to the police?

Iraq war veteran Nathan Cox does, and so does his attorney, Richmond free-speech crusader Tom Roberts.

They just got $10,000 settlement check from the state for an alleged illegal traffic stop by a Virginia Commonwealth University police officer last spring.

Cox, a libertarian who founded the Virginia branch of an organization called CopBlock.org, was driving his car on N. 7th Street downtown near the Coliseum last April when he passed a VCU police officer who was talking with someone pulled over on the side of the road.

Cox said he picked up his bullhorn and addressed the officer out of his window.

“I simply turned my head and said, stop harassing people, we pay your paychecks,” Cox said. 

Very quickly, the officer’s vehicle appeared in his rear view, emergency lights and siren activated, Cox said. He picked up the small video camera he keeps on hand.

The officer, four-year veteran Shawn Kelley, approached the car on the video clip that Cox later downloaded to Youtube to chronicle his fight for what he sees as his Constitutional rights.

“How are you doing sir?” Cox asks.

“All right. How are we doing?” the officer responds.

“Doing fantastic,” Cox says.

The officer asks for Cox’s license and registration.

“Can I ask why you pulled me?” Cox asks.

“Yessir. For . . . ah . . . “

“Freedom of speech?” Cox asks.

“You look like you were a little distracted driving,” the officer responds.

Cox immediately asks for the officer’s supervisor to come to the scene, saying he didn’t believe the officer had probable cause to pull him over.

The officer goes to his car and comes back with a citation for obstruction of justice. Cox says he won’t sign it until a supervisor comes.

Eventually, a supervisor does come. A Freedom of Information Request filed in the case shows the officer calls the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office during the wait.

Cox is eventually charged with disorderly conduct.

When the case went to traffic court “the initial judge found me guilty for quote-unquote ‘being a jerk,’” Cox recalled.

They appealed it to Circuit Court. Tom Roberts, the attorney, said they didn’t even have to present any evidence. The judge heard the officer’s case and dismissed the charge.

“The second judge was pretty reluctant to dismiss the charge,” Cox said. “But he said what I said was protected under the First Amendment.”

Tom Roberts prepped a civil suit against the police department, but VCU settled out of court.

Roberts said police officers have a  badge and a gun – and a lot of power.

“That requires him to not go after people because he doesn’t like what they have to say,” Roberts said.  “He has that training. He knows that. In this case, the court found that’s what he did.”

Nathan is a staunch libertarian, an army infantry veteran of the war in Iraq who got involved in watchdogging the police after he heard libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul speak.

Does he hate the police?  “No, not at all,” Nathan replied. “I do not hate the police. In fact, before I joined the Army in 2006, I was actually trying to become a police officer.”

The settlement check went to cover Robert’s expenses.

“It’s the principle that matters,” Cox said. “I hope the officer and the police department, and departments as a whole realize you might not like something that’s said to somebody, but you can’t pull people over for it . . . I hope they learned their lesson.”

He said police officers have gone from being peace officers and protectors of the public,  to aggressive fine collectors and enforcers of laws that don’t pass Constitutional muster.

We left messages with officer Kelley and VCU’s police chief, but haven’t heard back from them.

Nathan says CopBlock.org’s mission “is to hold police accountable, to also educate people on their rights, specifically when interacting with the police.”

Roberts says the case is really simple; the police need probable cause to stop you and a perceived insult does not reach that threshold.

“I don’t think you or anybody else would believe he would have chased this man down if he had yelled out of his window, ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work.’”

Roberts said the officer involved was courteous throughout the traffic stop and he seemed like a nice guy.

And he acknowledges not everyone could do the job.

But anyone wanting to be an officer, Roberts added, “better make sure you’re trained, you better make sure you have the personality that can withstand a little verbal abuse and say, you know, that’s why I’m on these streets, protecting your freedom – your freedom to be disagreeable. And I may not like it, but you know, it’s bigger than you and me.”

“The second judge was pretty reluctant to dismiss the charge,” Cox said. “But he said what I said was protected under the First Amendment.”

Tom Roberts prepped a civil suit against the police department, but VCU settled out of court.

Roberts said police officers have a  badge and a gun – and a lot of power. “That requires him to not go after people because he doesn’t like what they have to say. He has that training. He knows that. In this case, the court found that’s what he did.”

Cox is a staunch libertarian, an army infantry veteran of the war in Iraq who got involved in watchdogging the police after he heard libertarian presidential candidate Ron Paul speak.

Does he hate the police?  “No, not at all,” Cox replied. “I do not hate the police. In fact, before I joined the Army in 2006, I was actually trying to become a police officer.”

The settlement check went to cover Robert’s expenses. “It’s the principle that matters,” Cox said. “I hope the officer and the police department, and departments as a whole realize you might not like something that’s said to somebody, but you can’t pull people over for it . . . I hope they learned their lesson.”  He said police officers have gone from being peace officers and protectors of the public,  to aggressive fine collectors and enforcers of laws that don’t pass Constitutional muster.

We left messages with officer Kelley and VCU’s police chief, but haven’t heard back from them.

Cox said CopBlock.org’s mission “is to hold police accountable, to also educate people on their rights, specifically when interacting with the police.”

Roberts says the case is really simple; the police need probable cause to stop you and a perceived insult does not reach that threshold.  “I don’t think you or anybody else would believe he would have chased this man down if he had yelled out of his window, ‘Hey, you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work.’”

Roberts said the officer involved was courteous throughout the traffic stop and he seemed like a nice guy.

And he acknowledges not everyone could do the job.

But anyone wanting to be an officer, Roberts added, “better make sure you’re trained, you better make sure you have the personality that can withstand a little verbal abuse and say, you know, that’s why I’m on these streets, protecting your freedom – your freedom to be disagreeable. And I may not like it, but you know, it’s bigger than you and me.
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This article was originally published and provided by affiliate WTVR-TV in Richmond, Va.

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