Newton police Officer Gregory Helms thought he saw a bald African-American man with glasses and a thick beard, but maybe he saw a smooth-faced African-American woman with a full head of hair.
In a strange case that played out in Newton District Court on Tuesday, the officer had cited Emerson College professor Jabari Asim for operating a vehicle without a valid license. But a clerk magistrate vacated the June citation and found that Helms probably cited Asim’s wife, Liana, a licensed driver who was simply running errands.
“This occupied my mind and my time for three unnecessary months,” Asim said after magistrate Larry Okstein made the ruling. “How could they not see the difference?”
After the hearing that involved a private attorney, more than 10 pieces of evidence, GPS records, and sworn affidavits, Asim, also an NAACP newspaper editor, alleged the citation was motivated out of implicit racial bias.
Asim’s prior claims of bias played a role in the dramatic traffic hearing in Courtroom 2, as the Police Department and Asim’s lawyer, Thomas D. Herman, presented differing accounts of what happened on June 22.
The police, which called Helms as its only witness, used street cameras and introduced evidence to establish that a gray Nissan Quest registered to Asim was traveling in Newton at about 6:15 p.m.
By Helms’s account, he noticed the driver giving a “nervous” look, so he ran the vehicle’s information through the state database. In minutes, Helms found that Asim’s license was “denied/nonrenewable,” so when the officer’s light changed, he looked for the vehicle to issue a citation.
When he was not able to locate the vehicle, Helms said he looked up Asim’s driving photograph and recognized the man as the driver. Helms sent a traffic citation to Asim’s home.
“He had that beard,” Helms said in court, referring to the Nissan’s driver and motioning to Asim.
However, according to the GPS on Asim’s cellphone, eyewitness statements from colleagues, and store receipts, Asim had spent the day at Emerson College. His wife, Liana, was driving through Newton.
“I had just picked up some sheets at Target,” Liana Asim testified in court.
Following the magistrate’s ruling, Jabari Asim questioned the Police Department’s account.
As a city resident, he was concerned that a police officer could not tell the difference between two drastically different people. But he also wondered why his license plates were searched in the first place.
“For a black man, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Asim said. “If we look at the cop, it’s dangerous. If we look away from the cop, it’s dangerous. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Okstein clarified that his ruling disregarded the motive of the traffic violation, and was focused on whether Asim was driving the vehicle.
Robert Birnbaum, a Newton resident, listened to the court proceedings and said the case shocked him.
“All my interactions with police here have been decent,” Birnbaum said. “But yeah, when you see this, it’s very strange.”
Helms, the officer, did not comment after the hearing.
In his testimony, Helms said the Nissan’s driver appeared nervous because the person was looking straight ahead after making eye contact with him.
“Normally, that double take indicates someone is nervous,” he testified.
Asim’s lawyer said the officer acted within his jurisdiction.
“I’m not saying what the officer did had cause or reason, but he was within his legal rights,” Herman said. “I was certain that Professor Asim was innocent, but you never know how things will go.”
Asim was supported in the small courtroom by several friends and colleagues.
“I knew it was a case of mistaken identity,” said Jane Unrue, a creative writing professor at Harvard University. “I just came to support him. It’s that simple.”
Richard Hoffman works with Asim at Emerson College. He said the magistrate’s ruling was not a surprise.
“We all knew,” he said. “I have to drive him around places because he won’t drive. This should have taken five minutes.”
It took two hours.