A San Francisco deputy public defender was handcuffed and arrested at the Hall of Justice after she objected to city police officers questioning her client outside a courtroom, an incident that her office called outrageous and police officials defended as appropriate.
The Tuesday afternoon arrest of attorney Jami Tillotson as she denied police officers’ attempts to take photos of her client without explanation raised questions about police intimidation and harassment, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said at a Wednesday news conference.
But police said the five officers, led by a plainclothes sergeant, were investigating a burglary case in which Tillotson’s client and his co-defendant were considered persons of interest. Tillotson was cited for misdemeanor resisting or delaying arrest because she obstructed a police investigation, officials said.
“I was arrested for what we do as public defenders every day,” Tillotson said of the encounter, which was captured in a video that the public defender’s office posted on YouTube. “I asked questions. I talked to my client and explained to him his rights. At that point, I was told I was interfering and taken into custody.”
'Simply doing her job’
Adachi said, “This is not Guantanamo Bay. You have an absolute right to have a lawyer with you when you’re questioned. Ms. Tillotson was simply doing her job.”
Tillotson’s client had just made an appearance in Department 17 on the second floor with a co-defendant for a misdemeanor theft charge when they left the courtroom and came under questioning by a plainclothes police officer at about 2 p.m., authorities said.
Other attorneys with the public defender’s office filmed the interaction, in which the plainclothes officer, Sgt. Brian Stansbury, told Tillotson, “I just want to take some pictures, OK, and he’ll be free to go.” When she declined his request, Stansbury said, “If you continue to do this, I will arrest you for resisting arrest.”
“Please do,” Tillotson responded.
“It was very clear to me that I hadn’t been doing anything illegal,” she said at the Wednesday news conference. “I was challenging him, telling him that you know that I know that I did not violate the law. He moved it forward.”
The video showed Stansbury continuing to take photos of the client and his co-defendant after Tillotson was handcuffed and led away, with Stansbury telling them, “Try not to move.”
Stansbury was one of three officers whose traffic stop of an off-duty black colleague in 2013 led the off-duty officer to file a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the city. Police officials have said the officers involved had not engaged in racial profiling.
Tillotson was handcuffed to a wall in a holding cell for about an hour while Adachi contacted San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and Deputy Chief Lyn Tomioka.
Officer called away
She was released because Stansbury, who was in court for a separate case when he spotted her client and his co-defendant, was subpoenaed to take the stand and had to leave, said Officer Albie Esparza, a police spokesman.
Esparza said police are investigating Tillotson’s arrest, and “the department will forward this to the district attorney’s office when appropriate.”
Adachi said he was hoping for “some accountability” from the Police Department. “A uniform does not give anyone license to bully people out of their constitutional rights,” he said. “If police are able to do this to a deputy public defender in front of her client, I can only imagine what is happening out on the streets.”
Hadar Aviram, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said the rights of Tillotson and her client during the confrontation appeared to be “a stickier legal issue than it seems.”
The public defender’s office is arguing that Tillotson’s client had a right to counsel. But Aviram said that for the right to counsel to apply to this situation, the officers would have to be questioning Tillotson’s client about the theft case for which she was representing him.
Police officials said the officers were talking to the two men in connection to a separate, unsolved burglary case. Esparza said that investigation is also ongoing, and that the men were not arrested.
Types of detention
As for the right against self-incrimination, Aviram said the issue is whether the police interaction with the two men was a custodial interrogation, which requires officers to issue a Miranda warning informing a detainee of his or her rights.
Esparza said there are different types of detention that can range from interrogation, in which a person has a right to have an attorney present, to a casual “consensual encounter.”
“What I saw from the video was the cops asking their names and taking their pictures from angles that lead me to believe that they were putting together a lineup for another offense,” Aviram said. “Presumably they can do this, but ordinarily they wouldn’t grab you from a courtroom hallway.”
She added, “Regardless of where the constitutional disposition is, the attorney was in no way being violent or resisting arrest or being disruptive in any way. It’s extreme and it’s bad press for (the police). I’m surprised.”