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Woman who observed traffic stop of black driver by white troopers on trial

An Ashland woman who parked on the shoulder of Interstate 5 to observe two white Oregon State Police troopers and a black driver is on trial after she refused orders to leave.

Keely Meagan, 55, said she stopped because nationwide news about police officers injuring and killing black people had made her fear for the black driver's safety.

"It felt at the time like the life of every black person pulled over by a police officer was at risk," Meagan said during her one-day trial Wednesday.

Meagan faces a misdemeanor charge of interfering with a peace officer by refusing to obey a lawful order. She also was ticketed for alleged illegal stopping, standing or parking — a violation.

Jackson County Circuit Judge David Hoppe will issue his ruling in the case Thursday. Meagan waived her right to a jury trial.

On Sept. 8, 2016, an OSP trooper stopped the black driver and his passenger on I-5 near Exit 27 on the south side of Medford. Trooper Marc Williams then arrived to help handle the suspected case of driving under the influence of intoxicants.

The driver admitted he had consumed marijuana within the last hour and consented to field sobriety tests, which he passed. The driver was not charged with DUII, but a tow truck was called to impound his vehicle because he was driving without insurance, according to court testimony.

Meagan was driving on I-5 and did not see the field sobriety tests, but she testified she saw the driver with his hands on his head with the two troopers. She testified the driver appeared to be in a "vulnerable" position.

Meagan parked on the I-5 shoulder behind the troopers, the driver and his passenger. She turned on her hazard lights, according to court testimony.

"My intention simply was to observe. I was sending a nonverbal message to the officers and the young man that someone cared," Meagan said, adding that she wanted the officers to be on their best behavior.

She said Williams demanded that she leave several times and threatened to arrest her and have her vehicle towed.

"It made me wonder what he was trying to hide," Meagan said.

Meagan testified she offered to park farther off the edge of I-5, but the trooper said that wouldn't work. He suggested she park at Walmart, but Meagan believed the situation would be over before she could walk back to continue observing.

For his part, Williams said he told Meagan that parking her vehicle on the edge of I-5 was creating a safety hazard. He noted she was about 200 feet from an off-ramp and there was heavy rush-hour traffic on the interstate.

"I advised her I was not opposed to her observing our traffic stop, but she needs to find a safer place to pull over," Williams testified.

Williams said Meagan offered to drive onto a grassy slope, but he was concerned she could get stuck, creating an additional safety problem.

Williams said Meagan's vehicle, which he described as a van, also may have been blocking the view of other drivers, who may not have been able to see the emergency lights flashing from his Dodge Charger patrol car.

Meagan countered that her vehicle is a Pontiac Vibe and is about 5 feet tall. The Vibe is a hatchback automobile.

Williams said he was not able to focus his attention on the driver and passenger, who were the subjects of the traffic stop.

"I felt like I'm having to divide my attention between the defendant and the two subjects, who were becoming increasingly agitated. It was a safety concern, because I had to go talk to her," he said.

Williams said while he was talking to Meagan, the other trooper had to deal with the two occupants of the stopped vehicle by himself.

Also while he was talking to Meagan, he said, a passing truck with a travel trailer screeched its tires as the tires locked up. Williams said he pointed out to Meagan the danger of the passing truck and trailer. He said such dangers were exactly why he asked her to leave and park in a safer location.

Williams said Meagan told him it is her duty to stop every time she sees a black man pulled over by police. Meagan said she needs to make sure drivers who are pulled over are safe, but Williams told her it is the duty of troopers to keep such drivers safe.

On the verge of tears, Meagan testified she was compelled to stop because she didn't want to learn later that the man had been killed, or wonder the next day whether he was still alive.

Long an environmental and social justice activist, Meagan is the author of the online essay "How Whites Can Say 'Black Lives Matter,'" which she posted in 2015. The courtroom was crowded with her supporters on Wednesday.

Also a driver education teacher, Meagan said she stopped despite her fears she could lose her job. She testified the I-5 shoulder is a place to pull over in case of emergencies or other serious circumstances.

"It's not a place to use lightly, but it is a place that is available to you if you need it," she said.

Meagan said she teaches people to drive safely and would never encourage them to defy a police officer.

Under cross examination by Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Jordan Bailey, Meagan said she saw no guns, saw no physical violence and didn't see anyone in handcuffs when she stopped.

"There was no immediate threat to this individual," Bailey said of the driver who had been pulled over by troopers. "She was going off a gut feeling."

Meagan said the role of a police officer includes keeping people safe and enforcing the rules of the road.

Meagan said after watching an OSP video of the incident, she understood why the troopers were concerned about the situation.

In her closing argument, defense attorney Lisa Janoski said Meagan was not creating a danger by stopping temporarily on the side of I-5 with her hazard lights on. She said Meagan had a right to observe the situation.

"She was there to make a statement. She was there to protect an African-American," Janoski said.

Bailey closed the prosecution's case by saying Meagan had constitutionally protected rights to observe the situation — but not when she was creating a danger for herself, the driver and passenger who were stopped, the troopers and passing motorists.

She never would have been charged if she had been in a safe spot, Bailey said.

"We need to preserve Ms. Meagan's rights, but we also need to make sure law enforcement can do its job," he said.

— Reach staff reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.