Man to stand trial for pepper spraying detective

Posted at 12:00 PM, Apr 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-04-28 15:41:01-04

SAN DIEGO - A motorist accused of trying to pepper-spray a plainclothes sheriff's detective during a traffic stop must stand trial on felony charges.

Robert Branch, 26, faces more than five years in state prison if convicted.

At the conclusion of a preliminary hearing that began more than two weeks ago, Judge Kenneth So ruled that enough evidence was presented for Branch to stand trial on a felony charge of resisting an executive officer, plus attempting to use pepper spray on an officer, and misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest and reckless driving.

He was also held to answer to felony charges of making a criminal threat and stalking from a separate incident involving a woman in 2013.

The judge denied a request by defense attorney Marc Kohnen to reduce the threat and stalking charges to misdemeanors.

A witness testified that 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.

Justin 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 cell phone -- 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 took out a canister of pepper spray from a tactical vest he was wearing but couldn't spray the officer because of a bad angle.

"He (Branch) seemed very panicked," Hudnall said. "I figured I or the deputy was going to get sprayed."

Deputy District Attorney Michael Runyon said sheriff's Detective Paul 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.

After parking on a side street, the detective -- who was on-duty but dressed in civilian clothes -- 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 told authorities he worked as a security guard but was not scheduled that day, according to the prosecutor.

Ward, a 30-year veteran who recently retired, testified that he showed Branch his badge and identification and asked for his driver's license and registration.

"He was wearing a tactical vest," Ward testified, saying that the vest also had a firearm holster.

Ward said Branch acknowledged that he was driving like a "jerk," but said he wouldn't comply with the detective's request because he didn't think the detective was on duty.

"I told him I had to pat him down," Ward testified. The witness said Branch slapped or pushed his hand away and said "Don't touch me!"

Ward said he put his hands up to stop Branch from walking away, but Branch pulled out his cell phone and began recording the incident.

"I figured out he had no intention of complying," Ward testified.

Ward said Branch became physically resistive and the former detective put him in a carotid restraint.

The witness said Branch went unconscious, but woke up as Ward started to pat him down.

Ward said Branch tried to run away, but the former detective said he grabbed him by the wrist and eventually put him in another carotid restraint.

A set of handcuffs and handcuff keys fell to the ground during the struggle, according to testimony.

Ward said he got Branch to sit on a curb and was able to remove the tactical vest before San Diego police officers arrived.

Branch filed a civil lawsuit against the county, alleging excessive force, and was later charged in the criminal case.

A Superior Court arraignment is scheduled for May 12.