Radical conservative Pastor Stephen Anderson’s personal antigovernment reality-TV show has unveiled a new episode.
Reprising a “role” he created and played last year, the firebrand leader of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Ariz., once again had a video camera rolling during a routine police traffic stop that turned contentious as a combative Anderson and his passengers defied police officers’ instructions. Unlike last year, when a stop at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Arizona resulted in Anderson being tased and thrown to the ground, this week’s tense confrontation in Benson, Ariz., ended peacefully. (The original footage of the April 2009 traffic stop can be viewed here - YouTube account required to view).
But with the surge in Americans claiming to be “sovereign citizens” not subject to federal or state laws or jurisdiction – and who sometimes resist police and government authority with lethal violence – the encounter illustrated anew how readily normal police work can hold hidden peril for officers. In a similarly routine traffic stop in May, West Memphis, Ark., police officers Brandon Paudert and Bill Evans were shot to death by father-and-son sovereign citizens Jerry and Joe Kane after being pulled over for a suspicious license tag. The Kanes fled but were tracked down and killed in a shootout with police an hour later in a Wal-Mart parking lot after wounding two more officers.
Anderson – a sympathizer with “Patriot” groups who last year preached that he hoped President Obama would die, and who has condemned “faggots” to death from his pulpit – seemed to try his best to create his second cause célèbre in 18 months at the expense of cops just doing their jobs. In the latest case, Benson officers Dustin Merrill and Braulio Hammons stopped Anderson’s car because his license tag light was out. As the encounter unfolds on his videotape, Anderson at first refuses to say where he is coming from or going. The officer, apparently Merrill, doesn’t challenge him but instead asks for the passengers’ IDs. Anderson intervenes, saying they don’t have to comply “because this is the United States of America, where you don’t need an ID to sit in a car.” The officer ignores Anderson and asks again, but no one in the car responds.
The officer then asks if there are any weapons in the car. Anderson pauses before arguing that he doesn’t have to answer the officers’ questions. This time, the irritated officer responds that Anderson does have to answer the question about weapons and orders him out of the car. Anderson refuses to get out. The second officer joins the first, and tensions rise as their orders and Anderson’s refusals to follow them are repeated. “What am I being accused of? What crime have I committed?” Anderson screams at one point.
Shortly afterward, Anderson asks again why he has to get out of the car. The officer replies, “For my safety.” Still, Anderson stalls.
Then abruptly, Anderson relents – and finally states that there are no weapons in the car – when it appears the officers’ patience is running out. One apparently pulls out his baton and can be heard on the tape saying, “I’m gonna bust …,” though the rest is inaudible. But now, the previously defiant Anderson adopts a fearful victim posture, declaring that he’s afraid the officer is going to attack him with his “deadly weapon” if he gets out of the car, then points out that the incident is being videotaped. The officers’ remarks can’t be discerned at this point, but Anderson finally does open the door and gets out, saying, “Do not tase me. I am not resisting. I am obeying exactly what you’re saying.” Anderson’s sudden shift from obstinate defiance – which effectively elevated the officers’ adrenalin levels – to obedient compliance, would have made for even more explosive reality TV had the officers lost their cool in the wake of his provocations. They didn’t.
His apparent attempts to provoke the officers notwithstanding, Anderson seemed well versed regarding his rights during a traffic stop. According to numerous Web sources, a driver stopped by police is obliged only to provide a driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance information to officers. Under normal circumstances, neither the driver nor the passengers are required to answer questions or to consent to a vehicle search in the absence of a warrant or an opportunity to consult a lawyer. Several sites recommend asking, “Sir, am I free to go?” – as Anderson did – which compels the officer to formally detain or arrest the driver if there is cause. However, most sites also recommend being respectful to officers and non-confrontational – advice Anderson clearly did not follow during the early phase of the encounter.
Benson Police Chief Paul Moncada told the Benson News-Sun that the U.S. Supreme Court in Maryland vs. Wilson, ruled that it does not violate a citizen's Fourth Amendment rights to require a driver to get out a vehicle during a traffic stop.
The parallels between the Kane drama and Anderson’s latest traffic stop are eerie. In both instances, the initial problem was a seemingly minor license tag matter. In the Kane case, son Joe was allowed to remain in the car as the officers talked to his father outside. Without warning, Joe Kane leaped from the car with his AK-47 assault-style rifle blazing and cut down the two officers. Had the West Memphis officers been as careful about the passengers in the Kane car and the possible presence of weapons as were the Benson officers in Anderson’s case, they might have survived that encounter.
By preparing for traffic stops with video cameras at the ready, and immediately choosing defiance over cooperation when confronted, Anderson seems to be itching for more YouTube-friendly material to advance his anti-government cause. His recent video was edited, with subtexts added at times, before being posted to the Internet.
In April 2009, Anderson was stopped at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 8 near Yuma. With the camera running, Anderson refused to answer the officers’ questions or get out of his car, Officers finally chose to break his car window and extract him by force, tasing him and shoving him to the ground while arresting him. Anderson sustained facial injuries requiring 11 stitches. Anderson’s video of the confrontation – and subsequent videos of him describing the events, showing off his wounds and talking about the experience before an anti-government crowd – blossomed on the Internet shortly thereafter.
In a jury trial in August, Anderson was acquitted of all charges related to the 2009 stop. He has filed a civil suit against the officers involved in that detention and arrest.