Cops Looking for Black Teens Arrested a Black Couple at Gunpoint

Now the couple from Rosenberg, Texas, are suing: “We hope this will be a warning to them and for other Black people and people of color around here.”
​Texas police arrested Regina Armstead, 57, and Michael Lewis, 67, at gunpoint when they were searching for supposedly armed Black teens.
Texas police arrested Regina Armstead, 57, and Michael Lewis, 67, at gunpoint when they were searching for supposedly armed Black teens. Photo supplied

Police in the city of Rosenberg, Texas, were searching for a group of Black male teenagers when they pulled over an older Black couple in their vehicle one night in November 2020. But instead of letting the couple go, when they clearly didn’t fit the description of the kids, the police handcuffed them at gunpoint, searched them, and confiscated and destroyed their belongings, including vital medical equipment.

Now the couple, Michael Lewis, 67, and Regina Armstead, 57, have filed a lawsuit against the officers, the police department, and the city of Rosenberg for violating their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures.

“Everybody should be treated fairly, and I feel like that night we were not treated fairly,” Armstead told VICE News. “We hope this will be a warning to them and for other Black people and people of color around here.”

On the evening of Nov. 6, 2020, police received an emergency call about a group of Black teens on the south side of town who allegedly flashed guns at another group of kids before driving off in a white vehicle with tinted windows and black rims, according to a copy of the lawsuit shared with VICE News. Five officers responded to the call.

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Around the same time, Lewis and Armstead were driving home in their white Dodge Charger with silver hubcaps after picking up food at a local restaurant, according to the lawsuit. Armstead, who was driving, noticed at least three police cars with their lights and sirens on behind them.

The cops used their vehicle’s loudspeaker to order the vehicle to pull over, the lawsuit reads. They then asked Armstead to throw the car keys out of the driver's-side window, exit the car on her knees, and pace backward toward them with her hands up. After she closed the 30-foot gap between her car and the cops’, one of the officers handcuffed her while two others pointed their guns at her.

Realizing that she and her partner were being arrested, Armstead told officers that Lewis has kidney disease, according to the lawsuit. The ailment is managed through a device called an AV fistula embedded in his left forearm, so he couldn’t have tight restraints on his wrists.

But instead of listening to her warning, they placed Armstead in the back of a police vehicle while four other officers, one holding an assault rifle, ordered Lewis out of the car, handcuffed him anyway, and placed him in a police car, according to the lawsuit.

For the full 45-minute traffic stop, the couple remained handcuffed while officers searched their vehicle without requesting or receiving their consent. The officers also confiscated Armstead’s cellphone. 

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Only after officers realized there weren’t any weapons or contraband in the vehicle were the restraints removed and the couple was allowed to leave the scene. When they asked what the stop was for, the cops said they’d been searching for three young men who had been “driving around and shooting at kids.” The items that were confiscated by the cops were returned hours later, but the fob used to start the car had been destroyed.

Lewis had to get three medical procedures to replace the fistula in his wrist, causing “prolonged pain and suffering,” the lawsuit says.

The couple said to this day they feel anxious anytime they see a police officer.

“Ever since they pulled us over that night with all those guns and stuff, we can’t even stand to drive down that street,” Lewis told VICE News. “We go the other way around because they might stop us again.”

The couple’s lawsuit claims the offenses against them reflect larger issues with the department: Officers who violate departmental policy by conducting warrantless searches of vehicles are not disciplined, and are in fact encouraged to do so when making an arrest.

The lawsuit lists at least 26 civilian complaints going back to 2017 that accused the department of stopping and searching people without cause.

Armstead and Lewis are also suing the department for violating the American Disabilities Act by not accommodating Lewis’ disability, and for wrongfully seizing their property without cause under state law. The couple is asking for monetary compensation as well as for the department to adopt a policy mandating the use of body and dashboard cameras.

Neither the city of Rosenberg nor the Rosenberg Police Department responded to a request for comment about the lawsuit. 

Incidents recorded on bystander video, reported in local media, or documented through dozens of civilian complaints show that the Rosenberg Police Department has a history of using excessive force when interacting with the public, and detaining people for longer than necessary.

A complaint filed just a few weeks before Armstead and Lewis’ encounter and shared with VICE News claims RPD officers pulled up to a location where people were filming a music video with their weapons drawn.

Last year, a disabled senior filed a lawsuit against the city and seven of its police officers after the officers allegedly detained him without warning. The lawsuit claims the officers took him to the ground and accused him of resisting arrest.

In 2017, the department settled with a couple who accused officers of forcefully pulling them out of their car and using excessive force. Cellphone video of the encounter shows officers punching the husband twice and leaving him bloodied, as someone off camera screams, “Dad, chill out.” It also shows another officer with a taser drawn and pointing it offscreen.

That same year, a father of three filed a complaint against the department saying officers stopped him and his three children for nearly an hour while trying to investigate whether someone tossed a piece of garbage out of the car window.

From January 2017 through April 2022, police have killed 589 people during traffic stops, and  Black people make up 28 percent of those deaths, according to the Guardian. Some cities, like St. Paul and San Francisco, have deprioritized prosecuting cases that stem from traffic stops in hopes of incentivizing cops from seeking arrests that way.

Follow Trone Dowd on Twitter.