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When a Scottsdale, Arizona, woman flagged down the police for help finding the person responsible for smashing in her car windshield, she never expected to be the one arrested. But officers handcuffed her, had her strip naked back at the station, and drew blood from her—all for a crime she didn’t commit.
The woman, Yessenia Garcia, was eventually cleared of all charges, thanks to the work of a defense attorney. But Garcia’s mugshot, which police posted online the day of her arrest, can still be found on the internet. She also says police never got to the bottom of who stomped on her windshield the night she was arrested.
“I had sleeping issues for a bit,” she said. “They didn’t drop those charges until about a month later. So for that time, it was so scary not knowing what was to come. It was really difficult to just sit on it.”
In May of last year, Garcia and a friend returned to her parked vehicle after a night out and found the front windshield badly cracked. Looking for help, her friend flagged down a nearby bike cop, officer Nicolas Fay. But the two didn’t receive the assistance they were looking for.
“Here’s the deal. We kind of already know what’s going on,” one of the officers on the scene told them, according to body cam footage provided to VICE News by Garcia’s defense attorney Ryan Tait. “This could be a serious thing if you lie about it.”
“Your car was just involved in a hit-and-run collision where a pedestrian was hit,” Scottsdale police supervisor Sgt. Ben Steel continued as Fay began to read Garcia her Miranda Rights. “And don’t make faces like you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
“It’s been nerve-racking to never know when someone was going to look at you differently or whoever you were talking to had seen your mugshot or would recognize you.”
For 45 minutes, Garcia tried to explain to police that she wasn’t the person they were looking for and asked them to question nearby security guards and check any available surveillance tapes to corroborate her story. Her friend showed officers card transactions that had taken place moments before proving they were at a nearby bar.
But the officers ignored her and insisted they’d watched the car pull up to the parking space on camera a few minutes prior. Officers also claimed that the hood of the car was warm, which proved it had been driven recently, and that Garcia’s clothing was covered in broken glass.
“They completely fabricated the notion that there was glass in her shirt,” Tait said. “I don’t know if there were flecks of some kind of material that had a shimmer in the shirt or something. But very clearly there was no glass in her shirt.”
“I was in disbelief the whole time,” Garcia added. “This was a huge mistake. The more and more the officers questioned me and the longer I was there, I realized I had no idea what to do. I ran out of ways to prove that I didn’t do this other than for them to check the tapes for the club that I was at or the parking lot.”
Had police considered what Garcia suggested, her arrest likely could have been avoided. Security video later obtained by Tait not only showed that his client’s car never moved from the parking space where the arrest took place but also that a stranger hopped onto the hood of Garcia’s car and stomped on her windshield multiple times nearly an hour before Garcia returned.
The video evidence directly disproved a police report of the incident obtained by local ABC affiliate KNXV, which first reported the story. According to the outlet, the report says that a review of available video evidence “was inconclusive” in proving Garcia’s car wasn’t involved in the hit-and-run, because of the camera’s constant pan to the left and right.
Tait told VICE News that Garcia’s vehicle was never out of the camera’s sight for more than 40 seconds.
Garcia was arrested that night on two counts of DUI and failure to stop at the scene of an accident causing injury or death. At the station, she was asked to remove her clothing in front of two female officers so the alleged glass on her outfit could be collected as evidence. Police then obtained a warrant to draw blood from her. When Garcia asked to see the warrant they had for blood analysis, the officers refused, and said he’d let her take a look after he was done.
“I don’t have time to waste with you reading documents,” the officer tells Garcia at the station in body camera footage also provided to VICE News. “If you don’t put your arm out, you’re going to be strapped down, we don’t want that. Put your arm out, so we don’t have to tie you down like an animal.”
“Is it not my right to see?” Garcia asks the officer.
“Yes, when I’m done, I have no problem letting you see [the warrant],” he says. “I have no problem with that when the time is appropriate. If you choose not to believe I have a valid warrant, that’s okay, that’s something you and your attorney can discuss later on.”
After complying with the officers demands, Garcia was released from custody a short time after.
The day after her arrest, Garcia retained defense attorney Ryan Tait, who obtained nearby surveillance video proving that her car was vandalized by a stranger and not in a pedestrian accident.
And a day after Tait sent police that video, they said they would no longer pursue the charges against Garcia.
“We're grateful that the surveillance video existed that proved her innocence,” Tait said. “But we’re disappointed that Scottsdale PD’s initial response,” Tait said. “This case highlights the fact that there are many more people in the Yessenia’s position who don't have the benefit of having conclusive evidence of their innocence, and that oftentimes police can reach hasty conclusions.”
Though she was cleared of the wrongdoing, Garcia’s reputation was violated. Her employer told her that before she came forward to explain the situation both HR and her general manager had already seen news stories about what had happened and were possibly ready to reprimand her.
“This arrest definitely altered my reputation in a way that nobody would want it to be altered,” Garcia said. “It’s been nerve-racking to never know when someone was going to look at you differently or whoever you were talking to had seen your mugshot or would recognize you. Always having this in the back of my mind created anxiety.”
Garcia filed a federal lawsuit against the department and the officers involved with the arrest in May 2021. But she says at least five attorneys have told her that because of qualified immunity—the statute that frees cops of the legal consequences of performing certain, otherwise criminally punishable, actions while on the job—she likely has no viable recourse against the officers she says humiliated and traumatized her more than a year ago.
A spokesperson for the Scottsdale Police Department told VICE News that they are aware of the arrest and have since opened a review of the initial investigation.
“Scottsdale Police Chief Jeff Walther subsequently asked for a formal internal affairs investigation of the entire incident,” the statement also said. “The results of this investigation will be made public.”