In an unprecedented incident, Deputy Public Defender Jami Tillotson was arrested and booked Tuesday on a misdemeanor resisting arrest charge for refusing to let a client of hers be questioned by a police investigator who was also trying to take pictures of the client, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said.
But police Officer Albie Esparza countered that the investigator, who is a sergeant, acted appropriately and it was the sergeant’s duty to detain and question the man if he thought that he was of interest to an investigation. Esparza added that the officer had the right to arrest anyone who was obstructing an officer lawfully fulfilling that duty.
The arguments were made during dueling press conferences held Wednesday by the Public Defender’s Office and the Police Department in connection with the arrest of the deputy public defender.
Adachi charged that the arrest and conduct of the officer – identified as Inspector Brian Stansbury – were unlawful, and that he had no right to question Tillotson’s client without her being there.
Tillotson said her client was at the Hall of Justice for minor and misdemeanor cases of theft, which were unrelated to whatever Stansbury was reportedly questioning the client about.
She said she was in another court room working on another case when it was brought to her attention that her client was being questioned and photographed. Tillotson then left the court room to inform her client that he did not have to answer Stansbury’s questions and that Stansbury had no right to be photographing him and his friend.
Adachi presented a video at his news conference that shows the confrontation.
In the video, Tillotson’s client is shown in a blue shirt, with Tillotson standing between her client and his friend, who is not being represented by the Public Defender’s Office, outside a bathroom in the Hall of Justice.
The video begins with the inspector telling Tillotson that he just wants to take a few pictures and then “[the client] will be free to go.”
Tillotson counters that the two do not need their pictures taken.
Adachi noted that since the client is already involved in the justice system, police already have his picture on file.
As the video continues, Stansbury asks to speak with Tillotson and tells her it will only take two minutes. She then replies, “we’re OK here. We don’t need any pictures taken, thank you.”
Stansbury subsequently threatens to place Tillotson under arrest for resisting arrest, to which she replies, “please do.” And then he does.
Following her arrest, Tillotson was taken to the Southern Station where she was held for about an hour, Adachi said.
“It was surreal to be led away in handcuffs for doing my job,” she said.
Adachi was outraged by the arrest.
“This is not Guantanamo Bay,” he said. “If this happens to a public defender in front of her client, I can only imagine what is happening on our streets.”
Adachi has requested a copy of the police report, which Esparza said the department would provide.
Adachi has also called for an apology, but it is doubtful that one will be forthcoming, because police believe the sergeant acted lawfully.
According to the public defender, Stansbury was the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit that was filed against him by another San Francisco police officer for alleged racial profiling, which is what Adachi has accused Stansbury of doing in the Hall of Justice Tuesday. The man he was trying to interview and photograph was African American.
It’s unclear if Tillotson will actually face charges in the case.
She was released from custody under penal code 849b, Esparza said, which usually means there is insufficient evidence for making a criminal complaint.
It still is an active criminal investigation, however, Esparza said.
“Time is on our side,” he said.
Police Chief Greg Suhr is out of town and had no comment on the incident Wednesday.