Arizona Cop Fired After Pulling Over Black Man for Hanging Air Freshener on Rear-View Mirror

Deputy Eli Max was fired from the La Paz County Sheriff's Office in Arizona over incidents of racial profiling, including a traffic stop over an air freshener that went viral.

On September 19, Max pulled over Phillip Colbert, 22, as Colbert was on his way to lunch with his father. Max followed Colbert—who was obeying the speed limit and had no reason to be under suspicion—for 10 minutes, and ultimately pulled him over. The reason? A pine tree air freshener hung from the rear-view mirror.

The stop lasted for about 40 minutes, Colbert says, and as the incident dragged on, he started recording the incident on his phone. The video shows Max asking Colbert eight times if he smokes marijuana and if he had any cocaine or heroin in the car.

"I denied any of the sobriety tests," Colbert told the Phoenix New Times at the time. "I denied him checking the car, because I felt as soon as he checked the car, he was going to try to put something in there."

Colbert was ultimately not arrested, nor did he receive a ticket. He filed a complaint about Max to the sheriff's office. His video, however, went viral and was reported on nationally. Colbert sued the sheriff's department, and the case was settled for $15,000.

"We are happy to get justice in this case. Mr. Colbert should never have been pulled over and harassed by this deputy who abused his authority," Benjamin Taylor, Colbert's attorney, told Newsweek.

Police Car Stock Photo
Deputy Eli Max was fired February 19 for pulling over a man for the air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror. Getty

Colbert's story brought more people forward to talk about Max's behavior. Larry and Janet Briggs were kept for an hour on Labor Day weekend by Max, who repeatedly asked if they were under the influence. Max also held them illegally for a dog search, despite the couple passing field sobriety tests.

"He goes 'we're going to bring the dog out,'" Larry Briggs told KNXV. "And he goes, 'I guarantee we're going to find drugs in your car.' And I'm like is this guy going to put drugs in my car?"

"I remember his parting words were, 'I know you're under the influence of something I just can't provide it," Briggs added. "I was like how many times can you be wrong about something in the same day."

Police records obtained by KNXV showed that Max had been placed under internal investigation and put on administrative leave on September 30 for two separate incidents on September 19 and September 20. The incident with the Briggs was not one of these incidents, as the sheriff's office had no record of the traffic stop.

Thursday, a spokesperson for the La Paz Sheriff's Office confirmed to the New Times that Max had been fired on February 19th. However, Max is appealing the decision.

Newsweek reached out to the NAACP Arizona State Conference for comment. The NAACP is the nation's oldest civil rights organization.

Update (3/9/2020, 4:30 p.m.): This article has been updated to include comment from Phillip Colbert's attorney.