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Judge to decide if chokehold case goes to trial

Posted: 7:26 AM, Apr 11, 2016
Updated: 2016-04-12 03:16:42Z
SAN DIEGO -- A motorist who struggled with a plainclothes sheriff's detective during a traffic stop pulled a canister of pepper spray from a tactical vest but couldn't spray the officer because of a bad angle, a witness testified Monday.
 
A preliminary hearing began Monday for the motorist accused of trying to pepper-spray a sheriff's detective during a traffic stop after the officer followed the defendant off the freeway.
  
Robert Branch, 26, is charged with felony resisting an executive officer and attempting to use pepper spray on an officer, along with misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest and reckless driving.
 
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Testifying at a preliminary hearing that will determine whether Branch will proceed to trial, Justin Hudnall said he was pulling up to his mother's home in Del Cerro after 5 p.m. last May 4 when he saw the altercation between Branch and sheriff's Detective Paul Ward.
 
Hudnall said at the outset, he wasn't even sure that he was witnessing a law enforcement stop, partly because Ward was wearing a polo shirt and slacks.
 
As the incident unfolded, the witness said Branch was holding up his cellphone -- as if to take a "selfie" -- and Ward was trying to put some kind of restraint hold on Branch from behind.
 
Hudnall said he overheard Branch telling Ward that he didn't know who he was, that the detective didn't have his lights on as he followed him, that the detective hadn't shown him any identification, and that he couldn't arrest him.
 
The witness said he saw Ward put a restraint on Branch and saw Branch lose consciousness.
 
Hudnall said Ward then identified himself as a sheriff's detective and asked him to call 911.
 
Branch regained consciousness and Hudnall picked up a gun that had fallen to the ground during the struggle, the witness said.
 
Hudnall said Branch dropped the pepper spray after taking it out of the vest he was wearing.
 
"He (Branch) seemed very panicked," Hudnall said. "I figured I or the deputy was going to get sprayed."
 
At Branch's arraignment, Deputy District Attorney Michael Runyon said Ward -- driving an unmarked Ford sedan -- observed Branch speeding and driving erratically on westbound Interstate 8 and followed the defendant's car off the freeway at College Avenue.
 
Runyon said Ward observed the defendant pull onto a street and get out of his car, wearing what looked like a tactical vest.
 
The detective -- who was on duty -- asked Branch for identification, but the defendant refused, telling the officer he didn't have to comply because the officer wasn't on duty, according to Runyon.
 
Branch used his hands to stop Ward from coming closer and began to record the incident on his phone and claimed abuse when Ward tried to put him in a chokehold, the prosecutor alleged.
 
A set of handcuffs and handcuff keys fell to the ground during the struggle, Runyon said. Branch told authorities he worked as a security guard but was not scheduled to work that day, according to the prosecutor.
 
Branch is also charged with making threats and stalking a woman in 2013.
 
Testimony in the preliminary hearing resumes tomorrow. At its conclusion, Judge Kenneth So will determine if enough evidence was presented for Branch to stand trial.