Jessie Thornton, Retired Firefighter, Targeted for Driving While Black [UPDATED]

Jesse Thornton

[UPDATE: Response from Surprise Police Chief Michael Frazier added at bottom]

Many people have seen video clips of police using radar guns that indicate trees or parked cars were exceeding the speed limit, but it is even more difficult to comprehend that someone with a Breathalyzer blood alcohol reading of 0.000 could be arrested and charged with driving under the influence. 

A lawyer for Jessie Thornton of Surprise, Ariz., said it was more likely a case of DWB (driving while black) rather than DUI and has filed a notice of claim against the city seeking $500,000 in damages.

One night in December, Thornton was pulled over by police for reportedly crossing the white line in his lane and accused by an officer of driving under the influence, “because you have bloodshot eyes,” Thornton, 64, told Phoenix television station KNXV.

The retired firefighter told the station that he had changed his schedule to be more compatible with that of his wife, an ER nurse who works late hours. He said he sleeps during the day and runs errands and works out in the evenings.  He explained to police that his eyes were red because he had just finished swimming at a local health club.

Thornton said his late hours have brought him to the attention of police before.

“I’ve been stopped 10 times in Surprise and given four tickets, it’s amazing,” Thornton said in the interview.

The city of about 115,000 is 45 minutes outside of Phoenix and is the spring training home for Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals. The city is just over 80.6 percent white and 5.1 percent black, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.

In the December incident, Thornton was taken to police headquarters where the Breathalyzer test was administered and came back with the zero reading. He was then tested by a drug recognition expert who also found no indication of drugs or alcohol in Thornton’s system, according to police department documents obtained by the TV station.

But, Thornton said, the problem didn’t end there. His car was impounded and the motor vehicle department notified of the arrest and charge.

“I then get this message that my license is being suspended and I have to take some sort of drinking class or something,” Thornton said.

The DUI charge has since been dropped, but Thornton’s attorney, Marc Victor, filed a notice of intent to sue, seeking damages for emotional distress and violation of Thornton’s civil rights. Thornton’s daughter also has filed a formal complaint with the city.

“This is not the way American citizens ought to be treated by officers or treated by anybody for that matter,” Victor said in an interview.

Thornton agreed.

“I don’t want anybody else to go through that.”

Noting that the charges against Thornton were dropped once the blood test results indicated the absence of alcohol, Surprise Police Chief Michael Frazier said that the story was not as cut-and-dried as it might appear.

“You may be under the impression that DUI test results are available to our officers immediately.  That’s not the case,” Frazier said in a statement last week. “When a subject in a DUI investigation agrees to give blood for testing, as occurred in this case, it can take weeks for the results to come back. In the meantime a DUI citation can be issued, pending the results of the test.

“This is just one example of how easy it can be to get the wrong impression of what has happened.”

Frazier asked the public to keep an open mind about the case and “do not jump to conclusions based on one side of a story. The facts will emerge. “

Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”

Back to top