LA MESA, Calif. — The man at the center of the controversial La Mesa arrest video that prompted protests last year testified Thursday in the trial of the ex-officer accused of falsifying his official report about the incident.
Former cop Matthew Dages is accused of lying about the basis of his May 27, 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, a young Black man who was waiting for friends outside an apartment complex near the Grossmont Transit Center.
Johnson’s arrest was captured on video and circulated over social media, sparking particular condemnation in the wake of the in-custody killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which occurred two days earlier.
He testified in an El Cajon courtroom Thursday about his fateful interaction with the officer.
“I was getting detained for no reason. I was arrested for no reason. He came up to me for no reason,” Johnson said.
Dages was taking part in a “fare compliance operation” with other officers at the nearby trolley station and alleged in his report that he initially approached Johnson for smoking in public and failing to have a trolley fare while being in a “fare paid zone.”
Deputy District Attorney Judy Taschner told an El Cajon jury in his opening argument that Johnson was holding a cell phone and that no lighter, cigarettes or other smoking implements were found on his person following his arrest.
“I had no idea why he came up and asked me about smoking, at all,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even think he was talking to me, when he first asked me.”
Prosecutors say the interaction between Johnson and the officer escalated into an argument when Dages would not let Johnson leave the scene after his friends arrived. Johnson says Dages was unnecessarily aggressive and persistent when he was doing nothing wrong.
“He was just pretty combative with me the whole time,” Johnson said Thursday. “I was confused and frustrated with the whole situation.”
Johnson was ultimately arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer but was not charged. Dages was later fired from the police department over the incident.
The defense argues Johnson was aggressive in his interaction with the officer and that Dages filed an accurate report.
Dages’ attorney, Jeremiah Sullivan, said in his opening argument that from Dages’ vantage point, Johnson was holding what appeared to be a smoking device to his mouth before he approached him. He said Johnson was also in an area where people cannot loiter without a fare or bus pass and lied to Dages by claiming he was a resident of the apartment complex, but later admitted he did not live there.
When Johnson’s friends arrived, Sullivan said, the situation “changed drastically,” with Johnson and his friends screaming and cursing at Dages.
At some point, Sullivan said, Johnson “decides to leave,” though Dages was not finished investigating. The attorney said Sullivan put his hands on Johnson’s shirt to prevent him from leaving, then Johnson put his hands on Dages, threatened him and balled his fists, “almost winding up for a haymaker.”
Sullivan said that despite his superiors having seen the video and their multiple demands for edits, Dages was not instructed to remove references to balled fists, a bladed stance or the fare paid zone.
The jury is expected to take a field trip to where the incident was reported on Friday.