The trial of a former suburban San Diego police officer who is facing felony charges of falsely documenting a controversial 2020 arrest finished its closing arguments on Wednesday, Dec. 8. The trial began more than 18 months after viral videos first showed an encounter that began with the cop mistaking a cellphone for a cigarette.
On May 27, 2020, La Mesa, California, police officer Matthew Dages approached Amaurie Johnson as the 29-year-old Black man was standing outside of an apartment building waiting for some friends to come out and join him.
Johnson had been using his phone, and Dages, who is white, had been in the area with other officers who were on a trolley fare enforcement operation near the Grossmont Transit Center in La Mesa. The officer explained his version of the encounter during his testimony on Wednesday.
“I thought he was smoking from where I was standing,” Dages said on the witness stand, explaining that he mistook the action of Johnson lifting and lowering his phone as smoking.
When Johnson replied that he wasn’t smoking and was merely using his phone and waiting for some friends to come out of the apartments, he went from being questioned to detained, as he explained in his own witness testimony last week.
“He told me I was not free to leave when I asked him if I could walk down the street,” local station Fox5 reported Johnson said in court on Dec. 1, the day the trial began. “He was asking me about the fare zone, so I was saying if this is a fare zone, am I allowed to go down the street? That’s when he told me ‘No, you can’t’ and sat me down.”
The 30-year-old Dages was assigned to participate in a “fare compliance operation,” which required him to make sure that people had their fare to ride public transportation at the trolley stop. However, Johnson was not at the trolley stop, he was across the street in front of the apartments.
By then Johnson’s friends had joined him, and here viral videos recorded Dages pushing the Black man down into a sitting position several times and arguing back and forth with him about why he is being arrested. Dages took Johnson in on charges of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest.
Dages was pressed on the stand Wednesday on whether he wrote in his report that Johnson was not smoking even though that was the stated reason for the approach.
“My question is did you write in your report that you did not find one item associated with smoking on Mr. Johnson when you searched him? Did you put that in your report?” he was asked under cross-examination.
“No ma’am, I did not, I did not think it was relevant,” Dages said. “Not important to you?” the prosecutor continued. “No, I was more concerned about Mr. Johnson putting his hands on me,” he replied.
The now-retired Police Chief Walt Vasquez fired Dages because he misrepresented the facts of the arrest in his report of the incident and showed a bias (based on race) in profiling Johnson for the arrest.
According to CBS 8 News, a statement from the city stated that the department only terminated him “after several months of complying with necessary legal protocols and procedures, including an external investigation by independent investigators.”
Footage from cellphones from one of Johnson’s friends and two other witnesses and police bodycams supported Johnson’s story enough that it caused the city to drop the charges against him and fire Dages.
Here is footage from one of the witnesses.
Dages appealed his termination but lost his appeal.
For more than a week other witnesses gave their side of the confrontation.
During the opening statements, Deputy District Attorney Judy Taschner told the jury that despite Dages’ written claim of Johnson smoking, which prompted him to come over to him, records show that there were no lighter, cigarettes, vape pens, or other smoking implements on her client during the arrest.
She further stated that Dages escalated the day’s event after he “confronted, detained and arrested a young man who had done nothing wrong and then he lied about it in his police report.”
Jeremiah Sullivan, the lawyer for Dages, rebuts these claims. He submits that his client was doing his duty as an officer, that Johnson threatened him, and that the report in question was edited three different times because Dages’ superior’s told him to change what he wrote.
Sullivan says the edits did not include the references of “balled fists,” a “bladed stance” or the “fare paid zone” — those were all from the officer’s original account.
Sullivan then told the jury, “Officer Dages absolutely submitted a 100% truthful and accurate report.”
One of the first four witnesses called to the stand on the first day was Channel Herd, an off-duty bus driver.
She testified, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, she had seen Johnson that day. She saw him before she went into a public restroom, noting he was not smoking at that time, and after she left it, noting that the officer was talking to Johnson. This made her concerned.
Herd said she saw Dages put his hands on Johnson and that the exchange changed after that.
Another witness, Thomas Wesch, who is a white lawyer and lived in the complex where the arrest was made, said he saw the exchange between Johnson and Dages and also was concerned. He pulled out his phone and recorded.
He said, “I noticed that things were getting a bit heated. I could hear loud voices and so I took out my cellphone and started recording.”
When asked why he recorded, he said, “Because … if I remember correctly, the George Floyd murder had just happened … a day, maybe two days before that. And I was worried that something like that was going to happen.”
On December 3, the jury reviewing the case visited the Grossmont trolley station and apartment complex. Their goal was to assess for themselves the distance between the two locations.
The day prior during his second day of testimony, Johnson shared that he was aware that some officers were checking fares for the trolley station, but was not concerned since he was not using the modality of public transportation.
He said, “I did see that some of the trolley officers were on the platform asking people for trolley fare, but I was across the street at the district apartments, so it didn’t make sense. He was kinda the only officer who came that far.”
Johnson is participating in this case on behalf of the state but also suing Dages and the city of La Mesa. He has already filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, which has been paused until this criminal case is completed.
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