Tomales elder handcuffed after wait she deemed too long

02/26/2015

Accounts differ as to what exactly happened between Claire McElroy and California Highway Patrol officers on the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 11, outside Tomales. The 78-year-old local claims a Sonoma County officer handcuffed her so forcefully that her hands bruised and bled; that was after waiting in her car for 10 minutes while two officers held up eastbound traffic on Tomales-Petaluma Road during a Kia car commercial shoot. 

According to Sonoma County C.H.P. spokesman Jon Sloat, officers believed Ms. McElroy was acting “irrational” and “not complying,” and they placed her in handcuffs “for her own safety.” The police report notes that the cuffs may have aggravated an old wound on Ms. McElroy’s hand. “Handcuffs by themselves won’t cause you to bleed,” Mr. Sloat said. “They just won’t.”

As Ms. McElroy tells it, the dispute arose due to the amount of time she said officers blocked traffic. According to a complaint sent to Marin County Adult Protective Services, she was afraid the hold-up would cause her to miss a doctor’s appointment in Petaluma—and incur a $100 penalty. She said she exited her car to ask how long traffic would be stopped, at which point one officer “aggressively” told her to return to her car. “He said, ‘Get back in the car,’ very aggressively,” Ms. McElroy said. She complied, but exited her car again 10 minutes later to ask how much longer she would have to wait. “Then he got very angry.”

The incident brought into question how C.H.P. interprets county film permit standards. According to Marin County Department of Public Works film and encroachment permit standards, officers managing traffic for film companies are required to let cars pass every three minutes; exceptions are allowed only with a Board of Supervisor-approved road closure, said Richard Simonitch of the Department of Public Works.

But a statewide “film media” spokesman for C.H.P., Miguel Luevano, said officers have discretion to hold traffic for longer than three minutes on county roads, even though that allowance isn’t written down. (It is written into state highway permits.) 

At least one person saw Ms. McElroy provoke the officer. Jof Hainwright, who signed the county permit for the company that shot the Kia commercial, Bandito Brothers, said members of the film crew witnessed Ms. McElroy attempt to “strike” the officers. Mr. Hainwright was unaware of any similar officer-involved incidents in the more than 15 years he has scouted locations for companies like Bandito Brothers to film in West Marin.

Ms. McElroy was not arrested or charged with a crime. Nor does the C.H.P. report note that she attempted to strike officers. According to the report, after she was handcuffed, Ms. McElroy “continued to scream, yell and act irrationally toward the officers.”

The situation was resolved when a neighbor, Russell Sartori, saw the handcuffed elder as he passed by in his car. Mr. Sartori stopped, persuaded the officers to release Ms. McElroy and accompanied her home.