A judge found Chikesia Clemons guilty of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest Monday after a bench trial for charges stemming from a controversial arrest at a Saraland Waffle House earlier this year.
Since a Snapchat video of her arrest made national news, Clemons’ supporters have held her out to be a victim of police brutality and a racially motivated overaction from employees at the Waffle House, who called the police on her and two friends around 2:30 a.m. on the morning of April 22.
During the arrest, Clemons — a black woman — was taken to the ground by two white officers from the Saraland Police Department, and her breasts became exposed during a subsequent scuffle.
The incident made national news and prompted cries of racism from such national civil rights activists as Rev. Al Sharpton.
Those siding with police, which includes the Waffle House employees, have maintained Clemons didn’t follow orders from officers after the group she was with caused a scene and refused to leave when asked to do so by the staff.
The division of opinions about this particular case was on full display in the courtroom Monday. On one side of the room, a mostly white crowd of law enforcement supporters included a sizeable group of bikers, while Black Lives Matter activists joined members of Clemons’ family on the opposite side.
Despite all the external chatter, the decision on Clemons’ criminal charges fell to Saraland Municipal Judge Mark Erwin, who, after a three-hour special court session, found there was enough evidence to prove the city’s claim Clemons behaved in a disorderly fashion in front of police officers and then resisted arrest.
While he said his decision was based solely on the facts of the case and the law, Erwin noted a fact-finding mission would do little to address all of the other concerns surrounding Clemons’ arrest for months.
“Finding that these violations occurred does not solve the emotions involved in this case,” Erwin said. “Finding a way to process those emotions is not what the law is set up to do. That’s what individuals have to do as part of a community, and I can’t speak to it.”
Central to Erwin’s decision was testimony from both witnesses for the defense and prosecution that Clemons verbally threatened a Waffle House employee with violence while officers were present.
Other than Clemons, who did not take the stand, a key figure in the SPD’s investigation was Waffle House employee Goldie Mincey, who got into an argument with Clemons’ group and ultimately instructed a co-worker to call the police. Clemons’ criminal attorney, Marcus Foxx, particularly focused on when Mincey called the police and why.
According to surveillance footage, that call was made about two minutes and 32 seconds after Clemons’ group arrived, which is before any visible signs of an argument. Foxx said Mincey didn’t seem fearful of Clemons’ group because she continued to stand near them and never told them she’d called the police.
Defense witnesses Mandy Sullivan and Heather Snow, who were at Waffle House during most of the incident, said they didn’t feel unsafe or uncomfortable because of Clemons’ behavior. They also testified that, in their view, Mincey was an equal participant in any yelling, cursing or aggressive behavior that took place.
They also claimed a group of white men came in after her arrest being loud as well. When one of them cursed audibly, Snow said the staff didn’t call the police, but told them not to use that language because “somebody just got arrested for that.”
Foxx made the argument that the restaurant’s handling of those two arguably disruptive groups shows a racial disparity that raises questions about why police were called to the scene. He said Mincey was the instigator and police made no effort to get all sides of the story — noting that officers took no statements from other patrons.
Another argument Foxx made was that the surveillance video showed little reaction from other customers and employees to Clemons’ behavior, which he said proves she didn’t cause “public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm” that would rise to the level of disorderly conduct under Alabama law.
“There’s not a single patron who gets up, leaves, calls the police or even acts differently. To the contrary, several of the employees are working around her preparing orders,” he said. “More importantly, these officers had an obligation to conduct a fair investigation. There were eight other people in that Waffle House, and regardless of what they may have observed, an officer’s duty when he comes into a situation is to assess everything.”
Regardless of why police were called, prosecutor Jeff Perloff said Clemons’ charges weren’t based on anything that happened before police arrived or after they left. He also said the owners of private property “have the right to call the police” if they feel as though someone needs to be escorted off their property.
He said the issue boils down to an observation made by Officer Christopher Ramey, who testified to hearing Clemons tell Mincey: “F**k you. I’ll come over this counter and beat your ass.” Ramey said that phrase indicated to him that Clemons was the aggressor and prompted his attempt to arrest her for disorderly conduct.
While there’s no recording of the exchange, multiple witnesses for the prosecution as well as the defense testified to Clemons’ making a similar statement that — at the very least — included the words, “beat your ass.”
“That ends up being the sole fact of disorderly conduct,” Erwin said. “I am also struck by the fact that [Clemons] had an opportunity to separate from this whole situation and left — best decision of the night so far — but came back into the situation with some point to make, and therefore we have this comment made in the presence of a police officer and the defense witness. It’s really undisputed.”
As to the charge of resisting arrest, Foxx questioned whether Clemons was ever properly informed of why she was being arrested. On the stand, Ramey said she was, but that was disputed by defense witnesses.
Still, Erwin said Clemons’ behavior in the arrest video submitted by the defense shows clear signs of resistance.
“She chose to tell them, ‘You’re not taking me,’ and struggle with the officer trying to get handcuffs on her to the point her friends, I think, sensed that enough was enough and said so in the video,” he added.
After his verdict, Erwin sentenced Clemons to one year of informal probation and fined her $200 for each count she was found guilty of and ordered her to pay court costs associated with the trial.
However, Foxx immediately gave an oral notice of his intention to appeal the case to the Mobile County Circuit Court. After the trial, he told reporters the guilty verdict was disappointing but said he and Clemons’ family are prepared to meet the challenge at every level moving forward.
“Obviously, we respect the province of the court. We do disagree with the verdict, and as for question of whether the things we heard here today are undisputed or beyond a reasonable doubt, we disagree with that as well,” he said. “We expect to take this to the next level and try this before a jury of our peers.”