Joshua McKnight was ticketed $113 for the heinous crime of stepping into a quiet, residential street from a sidewalk to avoid walking through a pile of debris.
He then stepped back on to the sidewalk before police approached and detained him, refusing to take no for an answer, insisting he hand over his identification.
It was an apparent case of profiling or retaliation considering McKnight is a local police accountability activist who records police in public, shows up to city review panels and files complaints against officers for not wearing their name tags.
One of the two Fort Myers police officers who stopped him has arrested him before on a questionable charge that was later dismissed.
That cop, officer Vasquez, was training the other cop, officer Zarillo.
McKnight recorded the entire detainment and refused to provide identification until a supervisor showed up. When the superior showed up, he sided with his officers and McKnight was cited anyway.
It all started on April 28, 2016. McKnight was walking down the sidewalk when a Fort Myers patrol car with two officers pulled up behind him.
“What’s the problem?” McKnight asks.
“Uh, you were walking back there in the middle of the road where there’s a sidewalk,” said officer Zarillo.
“I didn’t walk in the middle of the road,” McKnight responded. “If you look on the sidewalk, there’s an obstacle with debris on the sidewalk.”
Officer Zarillo then asked McKnight for his identification.
“Because I’m asking you for your license.”
“I don’t have a reason to show you my ID.”
“This is a lawful stop,” said Zarillo.
“A lawful stop for what?”
“For walking in the road where there’s a sidewalk provided.”
“There’s debris on the sidewalk, and I walked around the debris. C’mon, I’ll show you,” said McKnight as he began to walk towards the debris.
“No, no. That’s great. I can see it from here,” said Zarillo.
“So what are you stopping me for then?” asked McKnight
“For walking on the street where there’s a sidewalk.”
Officer Zarillo continued to pester McKnight about this ID and McKnight continued to explain the reason he stepped into the street is because the sidewalk was obstructed by palm tree debris that he had to walk around.
Ignoring this fact, Zarillo persisted to ask for his ID and McKnight insists on calling a supervisor to the scene.
“Give me your ID,” demanded Zarillo.
“I want a supervisor on the scene, sir.”
“Alright, we’ll get you one. But give me your ID.”
“Because I have a right to identify you.”
McKnight continued to protest about giving the officers his ID and explained how they drove by him several times and turned around to stop him after they apparently profiled him.
Officers on the scene claimed they didn’t know McKnight’s name. But when supervisor Petaccio arrives on the scene, he asked the officer Vasquez what happened, and if he knew who officer Zarillo had detained.
Vasquez stated just what McKnight initially told the officers.
“He was walking west down Dale street on the sidewalk, he walked off the sidewalk, he walked in the middle of the road, kept walking down the road, and then he came back onto the sidewalk.”
He then went on to tell supervisor Petaccio how McKnight was obstructing his traffic stop by refusing to provide identification, even though the stop was questionable, which appears to be officer Vasquez using McKnight as target practice for getting an ID from a law abiding citizen to train Zarillo, a greenhorn.
“I told him if he continues to refuse, I’m going to take him to jail for obstruction. He’s obstructing our traffic stop.”
Supervisor Petaccio then asked Vasquez, who was upset that McKnight wouldn’t hand over his ID over to his trainee, if he knew his name.
“I do . . . he knows who I am,” Vasquez carefully stated.
Supervisor Petaccio then went into defense-mode defending his officers’ stop, claiming they had video of McKnight walking in the road.
However, McKnight has since obtained dash and body cam video, which does not show him walking in the street.
It only shows them approaching him and detailing him on questionable grounds, the dialogue of the stop, and them issuing him a ticket.
Petaccio asked, “were you walking in the street?”
“No, I was walking on the sidewalk.”
“Well, they have video.”
“No, they don’t.”
“Well, they do.”
“I’m going to be requesting that video. I hope they do have it.”
Petaccio then begins to explain that anytime an officer conducts a lawful stop that it’s the law to obey every command an officer gives you.
McKnight responded that the stop wasn’t lawful, “what you’ve articulated is not the truth.”
“That’s what was articulated to me . . . was I here?”
“No,” replied McKnight. “But luckily we have video evidence.”
Petaccio responded, “and the issue is that’s why you go to court, he goes to court–”
McKnight interrupted, “what am I going to court for?”
“For the ticket he’s going to give you.”
“He’s going to give me a ticket?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Oh, wow. And you know he doesn’t have video evidence.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Petaccio. “If that car doesn’t have it, it doesn’t have it.”
That’s when McKnight calls them out.
“So he says he has video evidence. You said he said he had video evidence. And we’re gonna go to court and I’m going to request that video evidence. And it’s not going to come up. I think you guys are out here hounding me, because I’m on the scene recording you guys. And recording footage for the community in regards to things that happen here. I do freelance journalism.”
Even after McKnight stated over and over and continued to explain to supervisor Pettacio that he wasn’t walking in the street other than to walk around the palm tree debris on the sidewalk, Pettacio stood by while McKnight was issued a ticket, without even checking to see if there was evidence of him walking in the street.
It’s doubtful any of the officers really did not know who McKnight was, since he’s been know to do things like call them out for not wearing name tags while on duty.
He’s also been arrested by Vasquez, the officer training Zarillo, on a previous occasion when he pulled up to his mom’s house and knocked on the door.
While he was knocking on the door of his mother’s home, officers drew guns on him and ordered him to get back in the car.
Then they arrested him for driving on a suspended license.
The state attorney refused to file charges after reading the evidence in a case where McKnight wasn’t even driving when they pulled up to him with their guns. He was only knocking on his mother’s door.
On another occasion, they came to his grand mother’s house and arrested him on charges of selling to an undercover officer and possession of drugs after they alleged he was selling drugs on February 2.
But they didn’t arrest him until June 19.
“But here’s the thing,” said McKnight. “I didn’t live in the city at the time, and I didn’t sell drugs. I was in Tampa at college, and I was working two jobs. They said they had video and photo evidence. But when it went to trial, they said it was a transcribed copy and paste verbiage that they forgot to remove. And that they never had video evidence; it was simply a mistake.”
“No drugs, no documents to show, no video evidence. Yet how did I serve 67 days in jail before I was exonerated because there was no evidence? They said they had video evidence, then they lost it, then they never had it in the first place.”
McKnight later filed a pro se civil rights complaint on that case, but the state argued his claim past the statute of limitations requirements.
Vasquez also pulled McKnight over on another occasion in 2012, taking his ID card after McKnight had only driven over the paint. Vasquez issued a warning because there was no probable cause to stop him and told him to have a nice day.
McKnight told us that’s because they all know his name, because he sometimes shows up to citizen review panels and has filed complaints on police in the past.
In the end, we’re left with skepticism that McKnight was stopped and detained lawfully or for the reasons police gave him upon his detainment.
Instead, this appears to be a clear case of police harassment.
McKnight sent us the following photo he took this week as an example of the debris he walked around that day, but stated that there was a larger pile on April 28 when he was cited.
They still haven’t gotten around to providing him the footage that shows him walking in the middle of the street.
“In my opinion, I think this incident clearly reveals the internal woes concerning the training and supervison of the officers on the force to include the lack of accountability that plagues the Fort Myers Police Department,” McKnight said in a statement to Photography is Not a Crime.
“You have veteran officer Vasquez out training a somewhat inexperienced fellow officer Zarillo on how to violate the rights of citizens by way of abusing powers of authority. ”
And watch him in the second, third and fourth videos below that show him addressing the Fort Myers civilian review board about how police harass him and arrest him on unlawful charges.