David Cook: Driving while American

David Cook: Driving while American

March 24th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Jose Molina was driving his white Nissan Maxima down Main Street on a July night last summer when a police car began to follow him.

A red light. Molina stopped. Green light. He drove on.

"That's when she put on her flashing blue lights," he said.

Those blue lights. Such power. They can be a beacon of help or source of fear, especially for someone like Molina: brown skin, born 47 years ago in Mexico, doesn't speak English so well.

"She shined her flashlight in my eyes. She said she thought I'd been drinking," he said.

Or stoned.

"I told her neither of those were true. I was neither drunk nor drugged out," Molina said. "After that, it seemed she got upset. She started shouting at me."

Molina showed Officer Sheila Jetton his lemon-lime Gatorade. That was all he'd been drinking.

"She said, 'Stop lying to me,'" he remembered.

It was close to midnight. Molina, alone. Police flashlights in his eyes.

But he wasn't afraid.

"It did not even enter my mind I would end up in jail," he said.

Maybe it's because of all the studying he did

back in 2008. The civics questions he memorized. The way he stood up and pledged his loyalty to America.

The pride in his eyes on Nov. 19, 2008, when he became a naturalized citizen of the United States of America.

Mr. Jose Juan Molina-Maldonado, his certificate of naturalization read. An American citizen.

"I was not afraid anything would happen," he said.

By the end of the night, he would feel very differently.

What follows is Molina's story, told with the help of a translator. On Friday, Molina and his attorney filed a nine-count, $500,000 civil rights lawsuit against Chattanooga and its police department, best summed up in three words that appear throughout the 15-page suit: discrimination, profiling, stereotyping.

Molina got out of his car. The officer put him against the patrol car. Had him spread his legs.

"In that moment, there was so much pain," he said. "I wouldn't wish that pain on anybody else."

Four weeks earlier, Molina had undergone hemorrhoid surgery. His lower regions were still sore, sensitive, and, by the time he would finally be released from jail, had begun bleeding.

His eyes? They were red, bloodshot, watery, just like Jetton noted in her police report, as she thought he was drunk or high.

But Molina suffers from an eye condition his doctor diagnosed as pterygium and pinguecula, both of which can cause redness, swelling and irritation.

He's got documents to prove it. Medical records. Doctor's names. Bills and receipts.

That July night? He had his Georgia driver's license (Molina lives in Dalton) and car insurance. Showed them to the officer, and the other officers who soon arrived. And the Spanish-speaking officer who came to translate.

"His Spanish wasn't very good," Molina said. "He just accused me of things. He was only saying those documents, those papers are not mine.

"The officer arrested me, started yelling in my face, telling me to shut up. 'Shut up and don't lie to me anymore.'"

They searched his car. Took him to the jail. Charged him with driving under the influence.

"They didn't tell me I had the right to a phone call or the right to an attorney," he said. "They kept saying they were going to deport me."

How would you do that? How would you deport an American citizen? To where?

"When I left the jail, I felt like a piece of trash," he said.

His car had been towed. He had to obtain police permission before he got his car released.

"Whenever I would call, they would tell me the officer wasn't working," he said.

He was arrested on July 7. According to his receipt, he did not get his car back until July 24. It cost him $429.98.

He lost time at work, at the carpet mill. His mug shot ran in "Just Busted." He went to court four times (turned down offers to close the case if he pleaded guilty to traffic violations) before the judge dismissed his case. Each time, the officer who arrested him never showed up.

And his blood-alcohol content that night?

Tests confirmed what Molina told officers. Zero alcohol.

"I never imagined the laws in America could be used to accuse someone in this way," he said. "I would like for this not to happen to anyone else."

The floor under America is shifting. Can you feel it? Demographics are sliding around like cups across a dashboard; in the next 30 years, people with brown and black skin are projected to be the new majority.

When Officer Jetton flashed her light in Molina's face that night, she was looking at the future of America.

"I feel very proud to be an American," he said.

He should have been treated like one.