Bubbaland

Sign that lease in Mesquite at your extreme peril

You're a photo buff. You like to walk around your neighborhood playing with your new digital camera. Some bubba in coveralls with a handgun in his pocket runs out of his house yelling at you that you "could get your ass shot" if you take any more pictures. So you call 911, the police come, and they investigate Mr. Bubba, right?

Not in Mesquite, Texas. In Mesquite, Mr. Bubba calls the police. Bubba tells 'em you been out there takin' pitchers without his permission. The police look for you for two days. Finally, after much Sherlocking, they sleuth you down and find you standing on your front lawn. Next thing you know, you're all bloodied up and looking out from bars in the Mesquite slam.

See, in Mesquite the cops are bubbas. If you ain't no bubba, you're in trubba.

You would have the same legal recourse that Ryan Johnson has once Mesquite law enforcement gets done working him over. And you probably would need to think about doing what he's going to do.

Move to Austin.

But let me cut to the chase a little bit here, before I tell you the whole incredible story of Johnson's photography bust two weeks ago in beautiful Mesquite, our rodeo-lovin', goat-ropin' suburban neighbor to the southeast. For all I know, you might be on the verge of closing on that cool house with a pool in Mesquite, or maybe you're about to sign a 12-month lease on a neat apartment there. Mesquite does offer some amazing deals in the newer parts of town. But you need to know a few things about Mesquite police policy.

According to Sergeant Shannon Greenhaw, the official spokeswoman for the Mesquite PD, the police in Mesquite have the right to stop you and frisk you whether or not they have any reason to think you've done anything or might be about to do anything criminal. All you have to do is be "suspicious." And you are suspicious because Bubba down the street says you're suspicious.

I asked her eight ways to Sunday when and under what circumstances a citizen is subject to arrest and search in Mesquite. She said it was "at the moment of contact with an officer."

And whammo. Ryan Johnson is eating turf on his own front lawn with three cop cars in front of his house, cuffs on his wrists, knees bloody, pepper spray canister jammed up his nose with the cops yelling at him to stop having a panic attack or they'll nuke him.

This version of the story, which I got from Johnson and his partner, is substantially corroborated by what Sergeant Greenhaw told me on the phone, even though the Mesquite PD refuses to release the full arrest report until the end of the 10-day period allowed by the state Open Records Act.

Also before going too much further with this, I need to concede a few points. Johnson is a gentle giant, a large man who works at home as an engineer. He says he is terrified of confrontation and has always been subject to panic attacks, which cause him to more or less faint. He says he fainted when police demanded to search him for evidence of alleged photographic activities. Apparently the Mesquite cops are interpreting his slumping to the ground as "resisting search."

Johnson has provided me with a number of statements from people who know him attesting to his history of panic attacks. The Dallas Observer checked out his Texas criminal history. He has none. He also gave me statements from photo and art galleries affirming his genuine interest in photography.

But when Ryan Johnson aroused the suspicion of his neighbors, he was not taking pictures of bushes or birds. He was taking pictures of security cameras on a house two blocks from his own home in a neighborhood of small middle-class ranch homes built in the early 1970s. He told me he was surprised to see a house so near his own with six or seven security cameras protruding from the eaves and wanted to take pictures to show to Marlee Stewart, the woman he lives with.

Maybe taking pictures of someone else's security cameras is odd. His story resonated with me, because I walk around my own neighborhood taking pictures, including pictures in the alleys, and sometimes, frankly, of security stuff. If he's odd, I'm odd. But as far as I know, you can still be at least a tad odd in America without getting slammed into the back of a squad car for it.

I don't know exactly which bubba called the cops on Johnson, and I'm not sure it's any of my business. At least two different bubbas confronted Johnson at different times about his picture-taking in the days before the Mesquite cops jumped him. People, including bubbas, do have the right to call the police.

I sat down in the kitchen and had a nice long chat with the bubba gentleman who first accosted Johnson on the street to tell him he didn't want him taking any more pictures on his block. Ellis Starns is a retiree in his 60s who wears denim coveralls and a denim shirt. I mention these sartorial details, because Starns is a student of other people's attire.

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