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Sheriff: contentious Christmas Eve traffic stop 'unfortunate', but warranted
San Juan County's top law enforcement official issued a statement Tuesday defending his officers and department in the wake of a controversial traffic stop in downtown Friday Harbor on Christmas Eve.
On that night, a San Juan Island man was pulled over near the ferry landing parking lot shortly before 6 p.m. while driving a trailer decorated with Christmas lights and lined with hay bales, and which carried more than a dozen holiday carolers, including several children.
The ensuing verbal exchange between the driver and deputy that pulled him over quickly became heated and, according to several witnesses, that dispute nearly escalated into an altercation. Witnesses say that at one point the deputy lunged at the driver, but was restrained by a second officer who arrived at the scene shortly after the trailer was pulled over.
The party of revelers were all ordered to stand against the wall of a nearby convenience store while the deputies conducted their investigation, according to one witness.
Sheriff Rob Nou said the driver was stopped for allowing people to ride on a trailer and for operating a vehicle without signal lights, taillights and without brake lights. He acknowledged that the traffic stop "unfortunately" erupted into a confrontation between the deputy and driver.
"As your law enforcement officers, we have a fundamental duty to protect life and property," Nou said. "We also have a duty to enforce the law. This includes the enforcement of traffic laws. This was a traffic stop that needed to happen—not to dampen the Christmas spirit, but to try to prevent a Christmas tragedy."
No traffic tickets were issued and the man was allowed to drive the trailer home, under police escort, Nou said.
Still, it's not the first time this year that the Sheriff's department has become the target of criticism for the conduct of its deputies during traffic stops.
A multitude of complaints about overzealous enforcement and unprofessional conduct were aired during a three-hour town hall in March, in which Nou declined to discuss specifics of any particular case or incident, or matters involving personnel, in a public forum. At that time he encouraged anyone with a complaint to seek him for a discussion of the issue in private.
Nou said the Christmas Eve traffic stop is under review.
"I am reviewing the incident, and the conduct of all involved," he said. "If you witnessed this stop, I would appreciate hearing from you."