If it sounds pretty heinous in print, but it looks even worse on video, recorded with the officers’ own body cameras — two Roswell, Georgia police officers deciding a woman’s fate with a coin flip. And not even a real coin, either. While Sarah Webb sat in her car after a traffic stop, Officer Courtney Brown opened an app on her phone and Officer Kristee Wilson laid out the stakes: heads, Webb would be arrested, tails, she’d be released.
The worst part? The app came up tails, and Officer Wilson decided to arrest anyway, cuffing and placing a crying Webb in the back of a police cruiser.
Tail of Two Officers
Fortunately for Webb, the charges against her (driving too fast for conditions and reckless driving) were dropped after investigators viewed the body cam footage, and both officers have been placed on administrative leave. Webb says she had no idea about the coin flip until investigators contacted her.
“Wow, these people put my freedom in the hands of a coin flip,” she told WXIA-TV. “And that’s disgusting.” Prosecutors dismissed the charges in a court hearing last week. “She said, ‘I have watched the videos and I absolutely refuse to prosecute this case’,” Webb said the prosecutor told her. WXIA claims Brown and Wilson weren’t placed on leave until the station started looking into the case, and that an internal affairs investigation is underway.
While getting arrested for such a minor infraction seems harsh (officers acknowledged Webb had no other tickets), it’s well within a police officer’s discretion. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that cops can arrest and incarcerate a person even if the punishment for the charged offense doesn’t include jail time. Justice David Souter, writing for the 5-4 majority, concluded that neither common law nor prior Fourth Amendment precedent provided any grounds for placing limits on police authority to arrest individuals for minor criminal offenses.
The Court, however, did not address whether that authority should rest on the whims of a smartphone app. And while prosecutors did the right thing in Webb’s case at least, we’re left to wonder how many of Brown’s or Wilson’s prior arrests were decided so flippantly. But we’re pretty certain some enterprising criminal defense attorney is currently combing through their police reports already.