POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 22, 2011
The case against a Honolulu police officer accused of illegally entering the car of a motorist he stopped last March is expected to go to a jury Tuesday morning.
Officer Scott J. Valdez, 43, took the stand on his own behalf yesterday, denying firmly that he shoved a man or did anything else improper last March during a traffic stop.
Kapiolani Community College student Matthew Smith, 19, told the jury that after making a hand gesture at officers who passed his car along a narrow shoulder on the H-1 freeway, Valdez pulled him over, yelled obscenities at him and then pushed him forcibly twice on his chest twice before issuing him a traffic ticket with a slew of violations.
Valdez is charged with unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle, a felony. If found guilty, Valdez could face a maximum five years in prison. A misdemeanor count of fourth-degree criminal property damage was dropped yesterday by Circuit Judge Edward Kubo.
The jury will be asked whose account of the incident they believe.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Scott Bell described the March 27 incident as a case "about a bully with a badge."
Jeff Hawk, Valdez's attorney, said it was Smith who "from the get-go, started giving officer Valdez attitude."
Smith testified that his two-door 2007 Toyota Scion was crawling along in heavy traffic in the westbound left lane of H-1 near the Alexander Street onramp when motorcycles zoomed by along a narrow shoulder lane. When he threw up his hands, Valdez turned his motorcycle around and ordered him to stop, Smith said.
Valdez had him maneuver his car across two other lanes of heavy traffic and onto the acceleration lane along the right side of the freeway, began shouting obscenities at him and then shoved or punched him twice, he said.
Smith also said Valdez peeled the lamination on his driver's license and then issued a violation for having an illegible license. Smith said Valdez also marked falsely that he refused to sign the traffic ticket, crumpled it and then threw it back at him.
Bell also established that Valdez and his fellow motorcycle officers were training that day and that the citation issued to Smith was the only one the 12-year veteran handed out that day.
Valdez testified that at no point did he touch Smith and that it was the driver who acted belligerent. He said the only time any part of his body entered Smith's car was when his hand reached in with a window-tint meter.
Contrary to Smith's depiction of the events, Valdez said he was along the shoulder lane behind the Scion and stopped to pull the car over when he noticed the rear license plate had been blacked out by a dark plastic cover, a violation. He then also noticed tinted windows that also appeared to be illegal, he said.
It was while he and another officer were helping Smith move his car through several lanes of stalled traffic to the right shoulder that the motorist put his hand out the window and stuck a middle finger at him, Valdez said. "I was shocked. I thought perhaps it was somebody I knew playing around with me."
Valdez testified that when he asked Smith why he made the gesture, "he went off. ... He started complaining about police officers using the shoulder lane, he said it was unfair."
Besides denying that he shoved Smith, Valdez also said he did not swear at him, deface his license or throw a crumpled violation at him.
Valdez said it was Smith who grew belligerent, and that at one time he had to shield his face to stop from being hit as Smith gestured.
A replica handgun, which is not illegal, was found in the back seat of the car.
Valdez acknowledged that he ordered Smith out of the car and pretended to take a picture of the driver holding the gun. When Bell grilled Valdez about why he pretended to take a picture of it, Valdez said he wanted to discourage Smith from keeping a gun, replica or otherwise, in his back seat in the future.
Following a trial last April over the incident, Smith was found guilty of having an obstructed rear license plate and no front license plate, having an expired safety inspection and illegal window tinting. The judge found him not guilty of driving with an illegible driver's license.
Valdez has been transferred out of the Traffic Division and stripped of his police powers pending the outcome of his case. He is currently on desk duty in the Receiving Division.