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Driving While Black Still Tough for Iraq Vet

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A Green Tree traffic stop has reopened war wounds for one Iraq War veteran freshly arrived in Pittsburgh.

 

In August 2004, Liberian immigrant Joseph Jakey Brown suffered spinal injuries and nerve damage fighting for the U.S. Army in Iraq. Today he continues to experience depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. On Nov. 13, Brown was featured in a Washington Post story about immigrants defending America, despite not being U.S. citizens. "If I were going to die," Brown told the paper, "I believe I was going to die for the right reason, for a country that always kept their word."

 

But on March 12, Brown felt he was under attack again, this time by Green Tree and Pittsburgh police, who stopped him for speeding and eventually wrestled him to the ground.

 

Brown traveled to Pittsburgh from Woodbridge, Va., on March 11 to take a job as program clerk for the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies. Brown, 20, had a female acquaintance in the car. He was headed to his Green Tree home at 12:40 a.m. when he was stopped.

 

According to the criminal complaint and a separate police write-up cited by Green Tree Borough police chief Robert Cifrulak, when he was stopped Brown was traveling 43.5 mph in a 25-mph zone. Brown allegedly told Green Tree Officer Chad Rannigan that he was a federal agent, prompting Rannigan to ask whether Brown had any weapons. Brown said he had none. Rannigan reported "a strong odor of alcohol on [Brown's] breath," adding that Brown blamed the smell on his medication and "other excuses." Brown then asked to get his vehicle registration from the SUV's rear.

 

Rannigan says inside the vehicle's rear was a black pistol holster in a clear plastic bag, which Brown lifted to reveal a Beretta. "The driver immediately reached for the handgun," Rannigan writes, after which Rannigan and two assisting officers wrestled Brown to the ground. Only then did Rannigan discover the gun was a Beretta replica BB gun.

 

Rannigan also records that Brown "pretended" to blow into a breathalyzer three times, then refused a field-sobriety and blood test, which is an automatic DUI under Pennsylvania law.

 

Cifrulak says the arrest was "a textbook stop, everything done by the book." Brown's registration, allegedly in the back of the vehicle, was never even found, he adds.

 

Brown, who says he was stopped because he is a young black man driving a Mercedes SUV he'd bought that day, disputes nearly every aspect of Rannigan's report.

 

After being stopped, Brown says, he showed Rannigan a driver's license and multiple military IDs, including his disabled parking ID. Brown says Rannigan asked him if the Benz was his car.

 

"I think you're getting a little too personal," Brown says he replied.

 

Brown, who has a thick Liberian accent, says he next mentioned that he worked for a federal agency, not that he was a federal agent, and that he was a disabled veteran from the Iraq War and did not deserve to be treated poorly.

 

Brown says he was only reaching for his vehicle registration when Rannigan spotted the BB gun. His reaction to being tackled stemmed from being pressed in his war wound, he explains. "If someone jumps on me like that, I automatically zone out and think it's the enemy on me," says Brown. "I struggled with them because they were hurting me."

 

Brown was handcuffed for a short time, then spent about 12 hours in jail before being released. He faces charges of disorderly conduct, speeding and a DUI.

 

Brown denies he was speeding or drinking, saying the smell of alcohol came from his companion. While he acknowledges refusing a blood-alcohol test, he denies pretending to take the breathalyzer, and says he wasn't offered a field-sobriety test.

 

Cifrulak notes that a search of Brown's car turned up a speeding citation issued earlier that night by Pennsylvania State Police. The citation shows Brown doing 109 in a 65-mph zone while traveling from Virginia to Pittsburgh, but makes no mention of alcohol.

 

Brown has secured a lawyer to explore what he believes are civil-rights violations. Cifrulak is undaunted: "If Brown thinks this arrest is going to disappear because he's a black man in an expensive car, no, it's not going to."

 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story indicated that Brown became a U.S. Citizen in 2005. He says he is not a citizen, but has maintained his status as a permanent resident.

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