Trial begins for motorist accused of trying to pepper spray plainclothes detective

SAN DIEGO -- A motorist resisted a plainclothes sheriff's detective and tried to pepper-spray him during a traffic stop in a Del Cerro neighborhood, a prosecutor said Monday, but a defense attorney said his client had a right to defend himself when the detective put him in an illegal arm-bar chokehold.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Runyon told jurors that the incident involving 27-year-old Robert Branch wouldn't have happened if the defendant had shown sheriff's Detective Paul Ward his driver's license and registration during the May 4, 2015, traffic stop.

Runyon, in his opening statement, said Ward used "reasonable and lawful" force on Branch after the defendant resisted the detective's efforts to detain him.

Defense attorney Marc Kohnen told the jury that Branch was not guilty of any charges.

"Plain clothes, plain car, plain assault," is how Kohnen summed up the case.

According to Runyon, Ward's unmarked Ford Fusion was almost hit from behind that afternoon by a gold Infiniti traveling at a high rate of speed on westbound Interstate 8.

Ward saw the Infiniti weaving in and out of traffic and ultimately got behind the car and followed the driver -- Branch -- off the freeway and into a residential neighborhood, the prosecutor said.

Runyon said Ward -- a child abuse detective who had been going back to his office -- saw Branch pull over on a side street and the detective -- wearing a polo shirt and slacks -- pulled in behind him.

Ward became concerned when he noticed Branch was wearing a tactical vest with numerous pockets and the word "Security" on it and showed Branch his badge and identification, Runyon said.

When Ward told Branch he had to check him for weapons, Branch pushed the detective's hands away and Ward told the defendant he was being detained and applied a carotid restraint to control him, Runyon said.

Part of the incident was recorded by Branch on his cell phone. Branch is African-American; Ward is white.

"You cannot touch me!" Branch told Ward. "Can you call the police? You're harassing me! Do you know what's going on in the world right now? This is abuse. Your lights are not on! I'm going to spray you if you don't let go!"

A witness who was near his family home saw the altercation and called 911 at Ward's request, Runyon told the jury.

Justin Hudnall picked up Ward's 9mm handgun when it slipped out of the detective's ankle holster during the struggle, the prosecutor said, and told the 911 operator, "He (Ward) has him in a chokehold."

Runyon said Branch was a security guard but was not on his way to work when the incident happened, as Branch had said. The defendant was not authorized to carry handcuffs or pepper spray, which he had in his vest, according to the prosecutor.

Branch's attorney said the defendant worked as a security guard at big events but was seeking an armed security clearance and had taken steps to get a higher credential. Kohnen said Branch ordered the tactical vest online and had it only 45 minutes before the altercation with Ward, who has since retired.

Kohnen said Branch -- who lives in El Cajon -- was on his way to visit a woman when Ward almost hit him while they were both getting on the freeway.

The attorney said Ward had a police radio available to him but never used it to call for uniformed back-up as he followed Branch for more than nine miles.

Kohnen said Branch was "terrified" when Ward approached him and started recording for his own safety.

"He thought he was going to die," Kohnen said.