VERNAL — Coty Tabbee had two video cameras rolling when he walked down the sidewalk toward a pair of Vernal police officers who were about to arrest his mother.
One minute later, Tabbee was in handcuffs and headed to jail himself.
"Our rights are always being violated nowadays, so it's important to record any police interaction," Tabbee said Friday as he talked about his July 27 arrest.
Vernal police had been called that day to an apartment near 500 West and 200 South after Tabbee's mother, Sherrilee Oliver, showed up and demanded that a woman living in the apartment repay a $20 loan, according to court records.
The woman told officers that Oliver had been "pounding on the windows and front door" and was "yelling and screaming at her" before the woman called for help, court records state.
Oliver, 48, told officers the woman hit her with a screen door as the woman tried to walk outside, which caused Oliver's arm to brush against the apartment's brick wall, court records state. She wanted to file an assault complaint against the woman but was issued a citation instead for disorderly conduct, an infraction.
After issuing the citation, the officers told Oliver to leave the area. They watched as she pulled her car around the corner and stopped briefly, before driving around the block and stopping in front of the apartment, court records state.
Oliver was told to leave again, officers said. When she started to drive away, officers said they heard her yell something at the woman who lived in the apartment and decided to take Oliver into custody.
That's when Oliver called her son.
"She said she was probably going to jail," Tabbee said. "She wanted me to come pick up her car so it didn't get impounded."
Tabbee showed up with his cameras rolling. In the videos he posted on YouTube, Tabbee is standing quietly on the sidewalk when one of the officers first sees him.
"Can we help you?" Vernal Police Cpl. Russ Larsen asks.
"That's my mom," Tabbee replies.
"Go away," Larsen says.
"I can be right here recording," Tabbee tells the corporal.
Almost immediately, Oliver yells from her car that she wants to file an assault complaint against the woman who owes her money, but the officers are telling her she'll have to talk to the city attorney. By then Vernal Police Sgt. Ammon Manning is standing next to Tabbee on the sidewalk.
"That's not right at all," Tabbee says. "You can press assault charges at any time."
The remark draws an immediate response from Manning, who tells Tabbee: "You don't want any part of this at all. Go away."
But Tabbee didn't go away. Instead he walked backward, cameras still recording, as Manning advanced and gave him seven more commands to leave the area before grabbing Tabbee's arm, pushing him up against a fence, taking him to the ground and handcuffing him.
Tabbee, 28, was booked into the Uintah County Jail and later charged in Vernal City Justice Court with interfering with an arrest, a class B misdemeanor, and disorderly conduct, an infraction. Oliver was also issued another citation for failure to disperse, a class C misdemeanor.
Austin Riter, a First Amendment lawyer who reviewed both videos but is not otherwise involved in the case, said he does not believe Tabbee broke the law. He said several court rulings have protected people's right to record or photograph police in public, as long as it doesn't interfere with an officer's work or incite others to violence.
"(The police) work in the service of the public, so what they do should be known to the public," Riter said, "and the public should be able to hold them accountable."
Vernal Police Chief Dylan Rooks said his department's officers are not afraid of being recorded on the job and noted that neither of the officers shown in the video ever told Tabbee to stop recording. He said the officers simply wanted Tabbee to back off a safe distance so they could arrest Oliver without any interference.
"This was an officer-safety issue," the chief said. "You have to base it on the information available to the officers at the time, and from experience and training, we know that whenever Mom is going to jail, a family member might try to stop that from happening."37 comments on this story
Riter acknowledged that some people might see Tabbee's reaction when Oliver said she couldn't file an assault complaint as "communicating with a suspect," but he doesn't believe that argument would hold up in court.
"Maybe the officer would say that's interfering with his ability to interview and obtain information from her," Riter said. "But I think that would not hold up to the First Amendment scrutiny."