Muslim teen arrested over fender bender

I-Team Investigation
March 15, 2006 11:00:00 PM PST
A Northern California police department is being accused of ethnic and religious discrimination in its handling of a minor hit and run involving a Muslim family. The I-Team has been studying the records and police audiotapes in the case.

The central question in this story is why. Why are the Davis Police and Yolo County prosecutors spending so much time, effort and tax money going after a teenage girl and her family for a minor fender bender?

Jamal Buzayan thought he was living the American dream. He emigrated from Libya 30 years ago, became a research scientist at U.C. Davis, and earned good money in local real estate. Then, one night last summer, the police came to his door.

Jamal Buzayan, arrested teen's father: "The other officer came in and went this way and he put his hand on the gun."

It all began six days before in a parking lot. According to a police report, two witnesses spot the Buzayan's SUV moving near a sedan -- they "do not see contact between the two vehicles," but notice some damage to the car as the family's SUV pulls away. The witnesses leave a note for the sedan's owner, Adrienne Wonhof. With the help of Davis police, she reaches the Buzayans.

Adrienne Wonhof, hit and run victim:: "They said they hadn't hit anybody's car, and that they didn't think that they did it."

Jamal Buzayan: "Her bumper is much lower than my bumper."

The damage to the two vehicles doesn't seem to match, and no one in the family recalls any collision, but Jamal writes a check for $870 anyway.

Jamal Buzayan: "And the lady came and took it on the tenth and cashed it and it was over with."

That's what he thought. Police recordings of interviews with the Buzayans explain why the trouble had just begun.

Officer Pheng Ly: "Can I come inside and talk to you for a second?"

Throughout this ordeal, the family insists the mother, Najat, was driving the SUV at the time, but Davis Police Officer Pheng Ly doesn't buy it. He whispers into his microphone about Najat's demeanor.

Officer Pheng Ly: "The subject kinda has a smile on her face when she's telling me all this. I think she knows more than what she's saying."

Then, the officer takes note of Najat's traditional head scarf.

Officer Pheng Ly: "The interesting thing I noticed about the mom is that she wears something over her head and the daughter doesn't and the witnesses didn't mention anything about that, think they would have mentioned that to me. So, it's probable the daughter was driving the car."

Ly never bothers to ask Najat about her scarf -- if he had, he would have found out that both the mother and her daughter, Halema, wear them sometimes. Still, the officer has the two witnesses check a photo lineup with Halema's picture. One identifies her as the driver, the other picks someone else. Davis Police do not take what would seem to be the obvious next step.

Whitney Leigh, Buzayans' attorney: "They never conducted any lineup that included a photograph of the mother which is standard police procedure and something that really surprised me in this case."

ABC7's Dan Noyes: "Who was driving?"

Halema Buzayan, arrested teen: "It was my mother who was driving."

Dan Noyes: "No question about that?"

Halema Buzayan: "There is no question, no."

The records show Halema and her mother never vary from the story. Still, six days after the incident -- three days after the family paid the bill -- Officer Ly is back at the Buzayans' home -- 9:30 on a school night, with back-up.

Jamal Buzayan: "I was really scared of them, cause both had hands on the gun."

The officer asks Jamal to see his daughter, Halema, the 16-year-old honor student, but she's asleep. He offers to bring her to the station in the morning, but Ly insists. Halema comes down the stairs and gets the shock of her life.

Officer Pheng Ly: "Well, based on my investigation, okay, I believe that you were driving the car, okay?"

Halema Buzayan: "Are you serious?"

Officer Pheng Ly: "So, I am placing you under arrest, okay?"

Halema asks to change out of her pajamas, but Officer Ly insists she just throw on socks and shoes. Her father stands by helplessly.

Jamal Buzayan: "That was the most humiliating experience I had in my life. And, you know you're just hopeless and you don't even know what's going to happen."

The officer drives Halema to the police station, interrogates her, and books her. He tells the girl again and again to just tell the truth, even while fingerprinting her.

Halema Buzayan: "He takes my fingerprints and every time he pushes down, he pushes down really hard, and he tells me, 'Tell the truth, tell the truth, that's all you have to do,' and he just seems so angry with me."

Dean Johnson, ABC7 legal analyst: "I think the arrest was over the top in this case."

Dean Johnson is a former San Mateo County prosecutor and legal analyst for ABC 7. He makes three points: the police violated Halema's constitutional rights by entering the home without saying they were there for an arrest, they treated the girl as if she were an adult accused of a felony, and the police violated their own policy against filing criminal charges in a minor hit and run, if it's been settled civilly.

Dean Johnson: "It's really about whether the officer violated Halema's civil rights in the larger sense of undertaking this investigation, prosecution and arrest because of her ethnic or religious background."

We wanted to ask Davis Police Chief Jim Hyde about the case -- he agreed to an interview, and then backed out as we were setting up our gear.

The chief's staff grabbed us and tried to force us out, including Assistant Chief Steven Pierce.

Dan Noyes: "You don't need to push me."

Steven Pierce, Asst. Chief: "I'm asking you to leave."

Dan Noyes: "Do not touch me, man."

Steven Pierce: "I'm asking you to leave."

Dan Noyes: "I'm happy to leave. But, there are a lot of issues -- you can't touch me, you can't touch the camera. We are happy to leave, we'll take our gear, but assistant chief, we need to talk to you about this thing."

Chief Hyde later sent a statement that reads in part, the department "handled this case precisely as it would any other instance involving similar circumstances." But, we never had the opportunity to ask police officials the central question.

Dan Noyes: "Is there an issue with racism on the police force?"

Cecilia Greenwald, Davis Human Relations Commission: "It appears that way, it appears that way."

The head of the city's Human Relations Commission believes it's a growing problem in Davis. Just last week, dozens of people came to the City Council meeting to complain about discrimination by Davis police.

Cecilia Greenwald: "If this type of behavior is allowed to continue in our community, who knows how many other people this can happen to, so we must stand up for one before it happens to others."

Cecilia Greenwald has been pushing for more police oversight, but the mayor of Davis defends the department and its handling of the Buzayan case.

Ruth Asmundson, mayor of Davis: "I'm comfortable with the process and procedure that we followed."

Dan Noyes: "Have you actually heard, ever, of a teenager being arrested for a minor fender bender like this?"

Ruth Asmundson: "This is the first case I've heard of since I been mayor."

Yolo County district attorney, David Henderson, is moving forward with Halema's prosecution. He didn't return our repeated phone calls and didn't speak with us when we went to his office this week. The victim in the case is outraged.

Adrienne Wonhof: "For them to prosecute something like this, this is a bumper bender in a parking lot, really makes me question like where the priorities are."

A judge could dismiss the charges against Halema Buzayan next week, but the matter is far from over. The family is planning a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Davis and Yolo County.

Dan Noyes: "What do you want?"

Jamal Buzayan: "I want justice, which is in specific terms, are we treated the same as anyone in Davis or have we been treated differently? They need to answer that question."

In his statement, Chief Hyde also said he doesn't discuss pending cases with good reason -- that could unfairly prejudice the case. The chief also told us Officer Pheng Ly would not speak with us and attorneys for the city declined to be interviewed. We didn't

UPDATE: Read the I-Team's follow-up report to this story here (March 21, 2006).


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