Alton Sterling Witness: Cops Took My Phone, My Surveillance Video, Locked Me Up
BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — The owner of the convenience store where Alton Sterling was killed last week by cops alleges in a lawsuit that police stole surveillance video from his shop, confiscated his cellphone, and locked him inside a car for the next four hours.
Abdullah Muflahi, proprietor of the Triple S Mart, said he saw police confront and kill Sterling, who was selling CDs with his permission in his front parking lot last Tuesday night. Muflahi recorded part of the incident in footage he gave The Daily Beast last week that shows Sterling did not have a weapon in his hand when Officer Howie Lake shouted “Gun!” and Officer Blane Salamoni fired six shots into his chest.
Muflahi claims in a lawsuit filed Monday in Baton Rouge district court that after Salamoni killed Sterling, he immediately told responding officers Lt. Robert Cook and Officer Timothy Ballard to confiscate the “entire store security system” and detain him.
“I told them I would like to be in the store when [they took it],” Muflahi told The Daily Beast, adding that he also demanded they get a warrant for the seizure of his private property.
Instead, Cook and Ballard took away Muflahi’s cellphone (and the video on it) and locked the him in the back of a their car before they entered the store.
"I was pounding on the car window when they went into the store," Muflahi said.
Muflahi was confined to the car for the next four hours, his lawsuit claims. The only time he was let out was to use the bathroom.
“The officers would not allow Mr. Muflahi to use the restroom inside of his business establishment and he was escorted to the side of his building and forced to relieve himself right there within arm distance of a BPRD officer and in full view of the public,” the lawsuit states.
During the four hours inside a cop car and another two hours at police headquarters, Muflahi was allegedly prevented from making a phone call to his family or an attorney.
Muflahi is suing Salamoni, Lake, Cook, and Ballard as well as the City of Baton Rouge and Police Chief Carl Dabadi. The lawsuit seeks damages for “false arrest, false imprisonment, the illegal taking and seizing of his security system, illegally commandeering his business,” attorney Joel Porter told The Daily Beast on Monday.
Hours after Muflahi’s lawsuit was filed, it was revealed that police had filed the search warrant and the affidavit with a court clerk on Monday morning—six days after Sterling was killed.
The warrant suggests that Cook waited five hours after he began his investigation at the Triple S Mart before applying for legal permission to search for the video. Cook submitted an affidavit to Commissioner Quintillis Lawrence at 5:23 a.m. and Lawrence authorized the warrant that very same minute, court papers show. At 5:50 a.m., Cook began his search and finished by 7 a.m., according to the warrant’s return.
“The timeline definitely doesn’t add up,” Porter told The Daily Beast.
Muflahi claimed in his lawsuit that police detained him and took the hard drive at around 1 a.m. So either police waited five hours to get a warrant and seize the hard drive—or they grabbed the hard drive and got a warrant after the fact to make the seizure appear to be legal.
The only way to know which scenario is true is to see the security camera footage, which would show if it was terminated before or after the warrant was authorized. However, police don’t just have the video but the hard drive itself, making it impossible to challenge their timeline of events unless and until they give up the video.
And Sterling’s family wants it released.
“The family would like the release of the video survillence tapes,” the attorney for Sterling’s son said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “If we are searching for the truth, it starts here.”
Porter claims police exceeded the warrant’s authority by seizing the hard drive.
“The warrant gives the Baton Rouge Police Department the authority to search the surveillance video on recording device, it doesn’t give them the authority to seize the device,” he said.
The warrant states that “the purpose and reason for the search is to find and seize the item(s) listed above,” referring to “Video Surveillance from the Digital Video Recorder.” It continues, “You are hearby ordered to search the aforesaid Revo Digital Video Recorder... and if the thing(s) specified are found there, to seize them and hold them in safe custody pending further orders from the court.”
How did the police know the brand of recorder, Porter asks, without already searching the back room where it was kept?
“They lied in the warrant,” he said, calling it “laughable.”
In response to questions surrounding the investigation, Gov. John Bel Edwards “believes all evidence should be collected in accordance with the law,” said spokesman Richard Carbo, although he wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the case, and again deferred to law enforcement on details.
Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond told The Daily Beast, “I think the public has a right to know under what authority the tapes were seized.”
Protests over Sterling’s killing have been escalating over the past few days, with 48 people arrested on Sunday and more than 100 arrested on Saturday. More protests are planned for Monday with no signs of letting up.
Editor’s Note: July 11, 2016, 6:45 p.m.: This story was updated throughout after police revealed they had a search warrant.