La Paz Cop Who Pulled Over Black Man for Air Freshener Is Fired

Phil Colbert's September 19 stop by La Paz County Sheriff's Deputy E. Max.
Phil Colbert's September 19 stop by La Paz County Sheriff's Deputy E. Max. Phil Colbert

The La Paz County Sheriff's deputy who stopped a Lake Havasu man over an air freshener back in September  2019 has been fired, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office told Phoenix New Times.

"On February 19th, Deputy Eli Max was terminated from the La Paz County Sheriff’s Office," said La Paz Sheriff’s Captain Curt Bagby in an email to New Times. Because Max is appealing his firing, the office cannot currently release further information on the deputy's termination, Bagby said.

New Times was the first to report the encounter between 22-year-old Phillip Colbert and Deputy Max. Colbert's recording of the traffic stop later went viral and made national news.

It all began when Colbert was driving down Arizona State Route 95 from Lake Havasu to Parker on September 19 to meet his father for lunch. Before long, he noticed a La Paz County Sheriff's Deputy tailing him. Colbert, who is black, stayed under the speed limit, but the sheriff's deputy continued to follow close behind Colbert for about 10 minutes, Colbert says.

It went on for so long that Colbert began recording the encounter, feeling it was strange when he hadn't done anything wrong. Finally, Deputy Max pulled Colbert over. In a video now viewed over 60,000 times on YouTube, Max can be heard telling Colbert he pulled him over because of a small pine tree air freshener dangling from his rear-view mirror.

Throughout the tense encounter, Max accuses Colbert of being "deceptive." He asks Colbert eight times whether he smokes marijuana, to which Colbert always responds no. Colbert has no record of being arrested for marijuana and the officer doesn't say in the video that he smelled any, so it's unclear why Max seemed so sure he could get Colbert to say he had smoked weed.

At one point, Max asks Colbert what his father does for a living. He asks Colbert whether he had any cocaine or heroin, then tried to get Colbert to consent to a field sobriety test and a search of his vehicle.

"I denied any of the sobriety tests," Colbert previously told New Times. "I denied him checking the car, because I felt as soon as he checked the car, he was going to try to put something in there."

In the end, Colbert was not arrested and didn't receive a ticket. An additional video shared with New Times shows Max walking up from his patrol vehicle and telling Colbert he was going to let him off with a warning. Colbert said the encounter took up about 40 minutes of his day. He later filed a complaint about Max's behavior with the La Paz County Sheriff's Office.

After the air freshener incident made local news, ABC15 News (KNXV-TV) reported that another couple had accused Max of racial profiling. Larry and Janet Briggs told ABC15 that over Labor Day weekend in 2019, Max violated their rights and questioned them intensely without cause during an hourlong traffic stop.

The events described by the Briggs couple sound similar to Colbert's encounter with Max. Throughout the stop, Max repeatedly accused the couple of being under the influence of alcohol and drugs, even though field tests came back negative. Max even brought in a dog to search the couple's vehicle.

Records obtained by ABC15 indicate that Max was placed on administrative leave on September 30 for two separate incidents — one involving Colbert's traffic stop, and another incident that occurred one day later.

Colbert did not immediately respond to a phone call and text message seeking comment.

Read more about the tense traffic stop and how it all went down here.
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.