David S. Cunningham III is a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, and a onetime federal civil rights attorney.
But on Saturday morning, he found himself handcuffed in the back of a UCLA police car. Officers had pulled him over as he was driving his Mercedes out of his Westwood gym — because, the police said, he wasn’t wearing his seat belt.
What happened next is a matter of dispute, but it ended with the African American judge yelling to a growing crowd in the heart of Westwood Village about police brutality.
Cunningham, 59, has now filed an excessive force complaint with the university, and his attorney said Monday that he believed race was a factor in how the judge was treated.
“Do you think this would have happened if he was a white judge?” said the attorney, Carl Douglas.
UCLA officials said the officers handcuffed Cunningham when he disobeyed their order to stay inside his car while they checked his driver’s license and registration.
“Despite these instructions, the driver left the vehicle — an escalating behavior that can place officers at risk,” UCLA said in a statement. “The driver stood in the roadway and refused instructions to get back in his car. As a result, the driver was temporarily handcuffed.”
The incident left some in Los Angeles legal circles stunned. Cunningham is known among his colleagues for his nonconfrontational style and calm demeanor. His father served 14 years on the Los Angeles City Council, succeeding Tom Bradley.
Douglas has demanded that officers be removed from duty while the incident is investigated.
UCLA said it is conducting an internal investigation and reviewing video filmed from the police vehicle.
According to Cunningham’s account, he was pulled over about10 a.m. He said he was in the process of buckling his seat belt after paying a parking attendant near the gym. He was dressed in a black gym shirt and shorts.
Officer Kevin Dodd asked to see his driver’s license. Cunningham handed him his wallet. Then the officers requested registration and insurance forms. When Cunningham reached for his glove box, an officer “yelled at me not to move,” he said in the complaint. “I became irritated and told him that I need to look for the paper.”
A prescription pill bottle rolled out of the glove compartment, and the officer asked if he was carrying drugs, Douglas said. The medicine was for high blood pressure, the lawyer added.
Cunningham couldn’t find the paperwork in the glove compartment and told officers he thought it might be in the trunk.
“When I got out of the car to search my trunk, Officer Dodd shoved me against my car, told me I was under arrest for resisting and locked me in the back seat,” Cunningham wrote in the complaint.
Douglas said the judge was tossed into the back of the police cruiser with such force that his feet flew up in the air. The second officer, identified as James Kim, accused the judge of “kicking,” Douglas said.
At that point, Douglas said, Cunningham became concerned about what the officers might do to him. Regardless of any directions the judge may have been given, it doesn’t justify the use of force, he said.
“He lost his cool,” Douglas said. “He began yelling about police brutality and about being a 59-year-old man slapped in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car for not wearing a seat belt. A crowd was gathering and he demanded they call a watch commander.”
He also told the officers he was a judge, Douglas said.
After about 10 minutes, a UCLA police sergeant arrived and released Cunningham. He was cited for failing to wear a seat belt.
Ed Obayashi, a legal adviser to several California sheriff’s departments and a use-of-force expert, said the UCLA officers likely had probable cause to stop Cunningham because he was driving without a seat belt — a clear violation of state law. It is not an unusual traffic stop.
Officers also have “absolute power to order an individual to stay in the car or get out of the car,” he said. “If an individual disobeys an officer’s commands, you have another violation.”
Still, one veteran civil rights attorney who knows Cunningham said she’s suspicious of the police actions.
“How do you escalate a seat belt violation into handcuffs for someone whose whole demeanor is so calm,” Connie Rice said. “It is pretty astonishing…. I don’t know anything about these officers but I do know David is about as low key as you can get.”
Former Los Angeles Police Commission Vice President Alan Skobin added: “I have seen him under pressure and he is a guy who keeps his calm and wits about him.”
Times staff writer Kate Mather contributed to this report.