LAS VEGAS — A Washington couple says they were falsely arrested by the Nevada Highway Patrol for stealing a collector car they actually owned.
The highway patrol admitted two errors that led to Robin and Beverly Bruins being removed from their car at gunpoint. And, now, the highway patrol is facing a lawsuit.
As the I-Team learned, it all began with confusion over a license plate on a classic car. A highway patrol dash camera recorded a trooper stating over a loudspeaker: “Driver! Remove your keys from the ignition and put them on the roof now!”
From that point Robin Bruins and his wife experienced a daylight nightmare when the senior citizens found themselves looking down the barrels of police pistols.
“Actually, I think I might have giggled to Bev saying, ‘well, I don’t know what this is all about’ and I put the keys on there,” Robin Bruins said. “And I turned and looked back and saw three gun barrels pointed at me. And, obviously it hit me. Whoa! What’s going on here. To this day I have never experienced anything like looking down the barrel of guns like that.”
The trooper said to him: “Go ahead with your right hand lift your shirt up. Go ahead, lift your shirt up. With the top of your collar!”
Multiple officers were shouting commands Robin Bruins said he found conflicting or confusing.
One trooper said: “OK. Turn around slowly. Turn around slowly.”
Bruins told the I-Team: “He was telling me to do something and I had my hands in the air and he said to do something again and I looked at him and I said, ‘are you talking to me?’ You know, what’s going on?”
Trooper: “Turn around. Turn around the other way.”
Trooper: “Yes, you!”
Bruins to the I-Team: “And it wasn’t until I had taken my shirt off and told to get on my knees and handcuffed and I said, ‘What’s going on? Do you think this car is stolen or something?’ And he said, ‘exactly right. And their car is going back to its rightful owner.’”
Beverly Bruins said the troopers treated the couple “like we were Bonnie and Clyde.” She was removed from the car at gunpoint with a broken leg at the time.
“I got out of the car and I thought, how am I gonna walk back without crutches?” she said. So, I went to reach for my crutches in the back seat and they yelled at me, ‘Keep — we said keep your hands in the air and walk backward towards us.’”
A woman trooper took Beverly Bruins into custody and checked her background.
“And then she ran a check on my license plate and came back and un-handcuffed me and asked me if I’d like to say goodbye to my husband,” Beverly Bruins said. “And I said, ‘goodbye to my husband? Where’s my husband going?’ And she said, ‘well, he’s going to jail.’ So I went over to see Rob and he’s in the back seat with no shirt on on, hands behind his back and tears are running down his face.”
Robin Bruins was ultimately taken to the Clark County Detention Center, where he spent most of the night in a holding cell with two dozen new acquaintances but not his nerve medicine.
“And I said, ‘well I’m past the time for my medications, can I take those now?’” he said. “You know, thinking that he was going to give ’em to me. And they said, ‘no, you can’t have anything you brought with you.’”
While her husband was in jail Beverly Bruins took her crutches and luggage to a hotel where she was able to sort things out. It turns out the car was stopped by the troopers because it had an historical license plate that did not show up in a computer check. Restored plates issued in the year a classic car was made are legal in Washington state.
The registration, which the couple provided to a trooper, shows the historical plate in a box called “equipment number.” The actual plate number is in another box. The trooper ran that number but he didn’t include a “plus” sign so it came back to the wrong vehicle.
That was error number one.
Error number two came when the trooper radioed the correct “vin” number of the car into dispatch. But the dispatcher entered the wrong number into the computer, and the erroneous number came back to a stolen car, similar to the one belonging to the couple.
The Bruins said they can understand an honest mistake, even two. What they don’t understand is why officers didn’t act on what appeared to be their own belief that the Bruins might be innocent victims.
As recorded by the dash camera, a trooper gets on the phone and tells his supervisor about Robin Bruins: “I tend to believe him. I mean I’m gonna run him before I make a determination … the guy comes back with possession … or a history of something like that. If he’s lying to me, that’s a different story. But, as of right now, I mean, he seems to be legit.”
Despite a clean criminal history check, Robin Bruins was hauled off to jail.
“I mean, he was on the phone with his supervisor, talked to other officers when they got there, talked to another officer at the detention center when I got there,” Robin Bruins said. “And they all agreed that I should be behind bars. And that is just incredible.”
The couple has since filed a lawsuit against the officers and head of the highway patrol for civil rights violations.
“Robin was not this, you know, car thief,” the couple’s lawyer Paola Armeni said. “They knew that.. And that’s repeatedly on the video. You can hear them questioning themselves. Yet they still chose to arrest him.”
I-Team: “You think it’s something you need, to send a message with litigation?”
Robin Bruins: “I mean, all they had to do is have one guy check what the dispatcher’s numbers were. And the whole situation wouldn’t have happened.”
Beverly Bruins: “I just think they should have used, that they should have used a character judgment. We live our lives so that we don’t get into situations like this.”
Robin Bruins: “To be treated like the both of us were, I mean, at gunpoint and then handcuffed and then humiliated by making you take your shirt.off and get on your knees on the side of the freeway. I mean, why should that have to happen to anybody?”
The I-Team sought comment from the highway patrol but agency spokeswoman Gail Powell wrote via email: “We are unable to discuss any specifics concerning on-going litigation matters.”