A 55-year-old Oregon woman who pulled over to the side of the road to observe a police stop was found guilty of interfering with a police officer last week.
Keely Meagan was merely observing, not physically interfering nor verbally interfering, but the judge said she had pulled over in an unsafe area, which is why he handed down his guilty verdict Thursday.
However, Meagan had pulled up behind two cop cars and the car they were pulling over on the side of an interstate near an exit ramp on September 8, 2016.
But Jackson County Circuit Judge David Hoppe said she created a safety hazard because her presence was too distracting for the two cops.
Meagan, who is white, said she became concerned when she saw the white state troopers ordering a black man to place his hands on his head because of all the reports of white cops killing black men surfacing throughout the country at the time.
Trooper Marc Williams had pulled over the man for suspicion of driving drunk, but the man had passed a field sobriety test, even after admitting he had consumed marijuana an hour earlier, which is legal in Oregon.
However, the man did not have insurance, so the trooper had his car towed, forcing the man and his passenger to walk down the exit ramp, which apparently is not considered unsafe in the eyes of Oregon law. The man was not cited for driving under the influence.
Judge Hoppe said Meagan has the right to observe police, but “she created a danger to everyone involved” by pulling up behind the cops,” according to the Mail Tribune, the local newspaper that covered the trial.
“You can continue to do that in a safe area. That wasn’t safe, and I think you recognize that,” Hoppe said.
After watching an OSP video of the incident, Hoppe said Meagan was dangerously near the interchange at Exit 27. Drivers going by her were not moving over into the left passing lane — as Oregon law requires when emergency vehicles are stopped at the edge of the highway — because they were staying in the right lane to take the exit into Medford.
“What happened that day was dangerous to you, too. You very well could have been hurt or killed,” Hoppe told Meagan.
He added, “You can continue to do what you think is right, but don’t stop behind police officers on I-5 in those circumstances.”
“My intention simply was to observe. I was sending a nonverbal message to the officers and the young man that someone cared,” Meagan said, adding that she wanted the officers to be on their best behavior.
She said Williams demanded that she leave several times and threatened to arrest her and have her vehicle towed.
“It made me wonder what he was trying to hide,” Meagan said.
Meagan testified she offered to park farther off the edge of I-5, but the trooper said that wouldn’t work. He suggested she park at Walmart, but Meagan believed the situation would be over before she could walk back to continue observing.
For his part, Williams said he told Meagan that parking her vehicle on the edge of I-5 was creating a safety hazard. He noted she was about 200 feet from an off-ramp and there was heavy rush-hour traffic on the interstate.
“I advised her I was not opposed to her observing our traffic stop, but she needs to find a safer place to pull over,” Williams testified.
Williams said Meagan offered to drive onto a grassy slope, but he was concerned she could get stuck, creating an additional safety problem.
“I felt like I’m having to divide my attention between the defendant and the two subjects, who were becoming increasingly agitated. It was a safety concern, because I had to go talk to her,” he said.
The Mail Tribune followed up its articles with an editorial supporting the judge’s decision, accusing Meagan of racial profiling because she assumed the black motorist was in danger at the hands of the white officer.
It’s worth asking why Meagan felt compelled to stop and observe merely because a white officer had stopped a black motorist. There have been no reports locally of white officers shooting black people, and there was nothing about that traffic stop to indicate it was not legitimate. If the officer had been black, or the motorist white, presumably she would not have stopped.
If white police officers stop drivers of color solely because they are not white, we call that racial profiling. Meagan’s decision to stop, prompted solely by the color of the police officer, could be considered a form of profiling as well.
Hoppe decided not to hand out any punishment to Meagan, which was reasonable. She did lose her job as a driving instructor, which also seems reasonable, considering that her actions posed a safety hazard to herself and to other motorists — not exactly setting a good example for student drivers.
However, a local resident named Claudia Little who attended the two-day trial disagreed with the judge’s verdict, writing the following letter to the editor, which was published in the Ashland Daily Tidings.
Having been in court for both days of Keely Meagan’s trial for stopping to observe a police encounter between a black driver and a couple of white policemen, I am very disappointed in the guilty verdict.
Apparently, the judge ruled on the fact that all parties were not in a safe location. However, the policeman that made the initial stop did so even closer to the off ramp and then, without a request for backup, another policeman decided to join the group. All three of these vehicles were parked on the shoulder before Meagan arrived on the scene.
The first policeman should have directed the driver to a safer location away from the off ramp to make the stop. And why was he stopped in the first place? Was he driving erratically or was it just that he was “driving black?” He passed a field sobriety test and after his car was towed for not having current insurance, was allowed to walk away.
Was another policeman really needed at the scene which, by the policeman’s own admission, was a dangerous place to stop? Why was the car towed for lack of insurance? Apparently that’s an option the police have, but no one I talked with afterward in the court lobby had heard of this; a warning and subsequent proof of insurance is what most remembered being required.
Keely Meagan’s trial was a lesson in what is allowed in Oregon to encourage good behavior by everyone in police encounters. It’s OK to observe and video. If you stop on the freeway, be sure to park well away from the flow of traffic and not within 1,000 ft. of an off-ramp (even if the police do!). Be sure to put on your hazard lights (Meagan did that without being told). And if you still get cited, have the courage to stand your ground and go to court and even get found guilty.
And Little is correct that the officers did not have to tow the man’s car simply because he lacked proof of insurance. Oregon lawgives police the discretion as to whether or not they should tow your car, which always results in the citizen having to pay impoundment fees to retrieve their car.