Phillip Colbert was driving down Arizona State Route 95 from Lake Havasu to Parker on September 19 to meet his father for lunch when a La Paz County Sheriff's Office deputy started tailing him. Colbert stayed under the speed limit, but the sheriff's deputy continued to follow close behind the 22-year-old for about 10 minutes, Colbert says.
It went on for so long that Colbert began recording the encounter, feeling it was strange to see a cop car following him so closely for so long when he hadn't done anything wrong. Finally, Deputy E. Max pulled Colbert over. In a video now viewed thousands of 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 was so convinced 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 the 22-year-old to consent to a field sobriety test and a search of his vehicle.
"I denied any of the sobriety tests," Colbert told Phoenix New Times this week. "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." It wouldn't be the first time police officers have planted drugs on innocent drivers.
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, and that he has since filed two complaints with the La Paz County Sheriff's Office, but hasn't heard back. Colbert said he's also been in touch with a lawyer in Phoenix regarding the incident.
Captain Curt Bagby from the La Paz County Sheriff's Office told New Times the incident is being reviewed.
"We’re going to do a thorough investigation into this matter," Bagby said via email. He also responded to questions about whether pulling people over for air fresheners is in line with department policy: "There are too many violations in the Arizona Revised Statutes for us to monitor everything Deputies pull people over for; I’m not sure specifically about air fresheners, [but] I know Officers will pull people over if their view is obstructed."
"We definitely don’t want to have a 'knee jerk' reaction to this, we want to make sure we do everything properly," Bagby said. "I won’t be the one doing the investigation so I don’t know all of the specifics yet."
"Got your license, insurance, and registration?" Max says as the video begins.
"Yes, sir," Colbert responds. Max asks him if he has any weapons in the car. Colbert says no, then asks if he may ask why the deputy stopped him.
"So, you can't have anything hanging from your rear-view mirror," Max said. "It obstructs the driver's view, it changes your perception and can cause an accident. So, they don't want anybody having anything hanging from there."
"So you stopped me for my car air freshener?" Colbert says.
"Yes, sir," Max responds. Colbert notes that he sells cars for a living and has never been told air fresheners are not allowed to be hung from rear-view mirrors. Max asks him for his license and registration. Colbert explains where it is located in the vehicle, grabs it, and hands it to the officer.
"Any marijuana in the car?" Max asks.
"Nope," Colbert says.
"You smoke marijuana?"
"No," Colbert says. "Is there a reason for all of these questions?"
"I ask everybody all of this every time I stop them," Max says. As he flips through Colbert's paperwork, the deputy comments on where the man lives and remarks that Colbert is driving a nice car. Then, "Mr. Colbert, when's the last time you did smoke marijuana?"
"I never smoked, I just said that," Colbert responds.
"Never? Okay ... you said there's no weapons in the car?"
"Do me a favor," Max says. "Relax man, you're still at 10 and 2."
"Well — I — because this is what we learn from where I'm from, this is what we do," Colbert says, keeping his hands on the steering wheel where the deputy can see them.
Max then asks Colbert to step out of the vehicle. Colbert asks if he can unfasten his seat belt. Max again tells Colbert "try to relax a little, man," to which Colbert replies, frustrated, "It's just like — I got stopped for my tree!"
At that point, Colbert puts his phone in his pocket but continues to record as he steps out of the vehicle. Max questions him about where he was going and what his father does for a living. He accuses Colbert of being dishonest, and says that he sees Colbert is "shaking a little bit" and thinks that he either had a bad experience with cops or is lying to him.
"I just think it's ridiculous how you're making me do all of this," Colbert says.
"I do this every traffic stop," Max replies. "You'd be surprised how many people get out of the car and man up and tell me the full story."
"That is the full story!" Colbert says, appearing exasperated.
"So there's no marijuana or anything like that in the car I need to know about, no cocaine?"
"Do you have any objection to me searching your car?"
"Yes, cause, why?"
"Again, we ask these questions for everybody," Max says. "I see your arm is shaking, so that nervousness is either deception or like I said, just —
"Can you see why?" Colbert interrupts. "Can you see why? With all that black people be going through? You see that I'm legit, you can call my boss over at Havasu, so why are you still nervous?"
Colbert declines to allow Max to search his car, fearing that the deputy may plant evidence to justify the stop. Max claims he never saw the color of Colbert's skin while tailing him. He again pleads with Colbert to just 'fess up "if you got a joint," saying the cops don't care about that. Then, he tries to get Colbert to take a field sobriety test, which Colbert also declines.
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The back and forth continues with Max accusing Colbert of hiding something and smoking marijuana several more times. Colbert pleads with him just to run his information like any regular stop or call his boss, whom he just left, or his dad, whom he is on his way to meet.
"I feel like this is against my rights," Colbert says seconds before the video runs out. Colbert told New Times he ran out of storage on his phone and the video automatically stopped recording. He resumed recording a few moments later with his work phone and shared those videos with New Times.
In the additional videos, Colbert momentarily films Max and his vehicle while he narrates what happened to the camera. In another, Max comes back over and says, "We're gonna get you out of here okay. I'd rather in the future — I'm trying to give you a positive outlook on law enforcement, man."
"I'm doing my job, I've been trying to treat you with respect," Max says. "You just obviously don't like law enforcement. I am going to give you a warning today, okay? But maybe in the future, like I said, man, if you got a joint, we're not looking for a joint."