Witness testifies man intended to use pepper-spray on detective

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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 today.

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.

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 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 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.

Dianne Branch, Robert's mother spoke to the media during the lunch break for the hearing.  She said her son's case was one everyone should pay attention to.

"It’s everyone.  It’s every color out there that’s been harassed by the sheriff or the police, it’s not just one color, no matter what race you are, it’s happening all over the world," said Branch.

Reverend Shane Harris with the National Action Network was with Branch, he called on the District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis to drop the charges.

"Bonnie Dumanis needs to dismiss this case and we are calling for that.  We'll continue to call for Dumanis to let go of the case. Robert Branch is not the criminal, the Sheriff's Detective who retired last week, he’s the criminal."

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.