Katie Gipson-McLean, a Maricopa County public defender, said that at least a dozen people who were arrested due to their involvement in last year's protests who have had their cases dismissed are still struggling to get personal property back. Police officers are quick to log defendants' personal property items as evidence in cases, she said.
"It's not unusual," she said. "There are so many things that get logged as evidence that really should just be returned to someone."
Yet in one instance, the Phoenix Police Department chose to return the firearms of a protester, but not the rest of his belongings, after his criminal case was dismissed.
Brandon Valentin, who's 27, was arrested at a downtown Phoenix protest in August for conduct that he allegedly committed at a different protest two weeks earlier.
Before the arrest, he said, he had been driving around near the August 23 protest in case any friends who were at the demonstration needed rides out of the area. Phoenix police officers pulled him over and arrested him near the Phoenix Police Department headquarters at 620 West Washington Street. He was eventually charged with felony rioting, felony assault on an officer, and two misdemeanors, including obstructing a thoroughfare. Officers seized his iPhone, GoPro camera, wallet, two pistols, and a bulletproof vest that had been in the car. He told Phoenix New Times that he typically keeps "at least one" gun in his car for self-defense and that he brought the vest in case police started firing munitions at the protesters.
"I didn't even want to go to that protest. I was just going to go sit in a parking garage and wait for someone to call me," he said.
Months later in March, prosecutors with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office moved to dismiss his case without prejudice, meaning that they could potentially refile charges against him. After badgering police staff — he said that he set up a "reoccurring email" to be sent to the same detective over a dozen times per day — and getting his attorney involved, the agency released his Taurus G2 and Taurus G3 9mm handguns and bulletproof vest. But they're still hanging on to his iPhone and GoPro camera.
"I was explicitly told that it was being held as evidence by the people at property impound." he said. "Clearly they’re doing that just to hold our shit. Clearly that’s what they’re doing but they won’t ever admit that."
Before his charges were dropped, Valentin had to bring his attorney with him to the department's Property Management Unit to get them to release his driver's license. But he said that he feels lucky because he "got more stuff back than most people."
Sergeant Mercedes Fortune, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department, defended the agency's continued holding of property.
"The Phoenix Police Department has released property that is not evidence to the persons who were arrested during the 2020 demonstrations," she wrote in a statement. "Any property which continues to remain in police custody is considered evidence and it will remain in police custody until the cases are fully adjudicated. If individuals have any questions about the status of their property, please encourage them to contact the Phoenix Police Department."
The dismissal of Valentin's charges was part of a broader move by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to toss charges levied against a group of defendants involved in the August 9 protest and other demonstrations. The agency also dropped charges against protesters accused of being part of a criminal street gang after reports emerged that prosecutors misled a grand jury and withheld evidence in the case.
Another protester, 23-year-old Ryan Tice, who was arrested last July for a similar slate of alleged violations at an anti-police brutality protest also said that Phoenix police won't return items they seized from him. His charges, like Valentin's, were dropped on April 19 without prejudice.
"They arrested me at home and because they were trying to get the outfit that I was wearing during the alleged crime," he said. "They refused to give me my socks back, my laptop, my phones."
"If my charges are dropped, they should give me my things back," Tice added.
"There are people who have their keys and their identification being held. You can’t convince us that stuff is evidence," said Lola N’sangou, executive director Mass Liberation Arizona, a criminal justice reform group. "This is just a retaliatory measure to punish protesters."