Arizona Man Faces Decades In Prison After Not Returning a Rental Car on Time
Brian Stepter, a 61-year-old Black man, has struggled with substance use for decades. Now, prosecutors are leveraging his record against him—and forbidding references to racial justice, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Stepter’s potential sentence, or his health problems at his trial.
Meg O'Connor Mar 25, 2021
In June, Brian Stepter will go to trial for four charges stemming from his failure to return a rental car on time in 2016 and errors he made in court paperwork in 2019. Stepter is facing a presumptive sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum of over 50 years.
Stepter, who is 61, moved from California to Arizona to be closer to his family in 2006. In 2010 he opened a barbershop, where he worked with high schools to hire at-risk youth as apprentices and teamed up with the Salvation Army to provide free haircuts to people struggling with homelessness.
But he has also struggled with substance use for decades, and has a record for drug possession and petty theft—something prosecutors are leveraging against him. Prosecutors with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office have filed motions that enhance the penalties if Stepter, who is Black, is convicted, and to forbid any mention at trial of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, racial justice, Stepter’s potential sentence, or his health problems.
“It’s all a nightmare,” Stepter previously told The Appeal. “At this stage in my life, at 61, it’s almost a life sentence. And to bring up situations in the 1980s that I dealt with to crucify me. … I lost my dad since I’ve been in here. My mother is 80 years old. It’s scary. You never want to lose a parent while you’re in here.”
Stepter’s prosecution began under Bill Montgomery, who resigned in 2019, but it continued under Allister Adel, who was appointed to replace him and was elected to the position in November.
Adel has said she is “different from [her] predecessor,” who had a reputation for fighting criminal justice reform and encouraging prosecutors to be as punitive as possible. But in recent months, Adel’s office has come under fire for the political prosecutions of Black Lives Matter protesters. The office was forced to drop some of the charges after Arizona’s ABC affiliate exposed misconduct and deception from law enforcement officials involved in the cases.
Adel said in 2019 that she might review cases of overcharging in her office if she was made aware of them. The Appeal asked the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to explain why it finds the proposed sentence to be fair and reasonable in this case, and whether it might fit the criteria of overcharging. The office did not respond to a request for comment.
Stepter’s latest legal troubles started with an anonymous tip to Scottsdale police: a photo of a Black man with a white woman. The tipster alleged there may be some “criminal activity” related to prostitution or drugs occurring at the location where the photo was taken, and provided police with the license plate of the pair’s vehicle.
Scottsdale police ran the plate and found it belonged to a vehicle rented by Stepter, the man in the photo. The car was six days past due, so police began surveilling Stepter. They later surrounded him at a 7-Eleven parking lot and arrested him. When police patted him down, they found .13 grams of crack and 4.6 grams of heroin. For comparison, a teaspoon-size rock of crack cocaine would weigh roughly 50 times more than the amount found on him.
Stepter was arrested on five felony counts: theft of means of transportation, unlawful failure to return rented property, possession of drug paraphernalia, and two counts of possession of narcotic drugs.
The rental agreement Stepter signed stated that he would be charged a $59 per day late fee. Stepter had left his credit card on file and said he thought keeping the car for longer wouldn’t be an issue.
“They said if you kept it later, there’d be a fee charge to extend it out past your agreement time,” Stepter said. “So that’s what I was thinking the whole time—that I had 30 days to return it and so long as I paid the late fees, I’d be fine.”
For years after his arrest, Stepter fought the charges against him while out on bond. But he suffers from chronic pain, chronic respiratory problems, and post-traumatic stress disorder since being the victim of a violent crime nearly 20 years ago, when he was shot 10 times on his way home from Thanksgiving dinner at his then-girlfriend’s house. The bullets blew out his larynx and his airway. Reconstructive surgeries have repaired some of the damage, but the incident has left him with a restricted airway and mental health issues.
In February 2019, Stepter was admitted to a psychiatric unit at a local hospital and diagnosed with anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and hallucinations. He continued to fight the charges after he was released from the hospital. In July, Stepter filed an application to set aside his conviction for a drug offense from 2011. He made several mistakes on the form, like checking both yes and no because he didn’t know the answer to a question.
Police and prosecutors alleged Stepter’s error-riddled paperwork was willful deception, not an honest mistake. In September, Maricopa County Superior Court approved a search warrant from Scottsdale police that authorized officers to collect precision location data from Stepter’s cell phone, stating that probable cause exists to believe Stepter committed perjury. The warrant also allowed police to track Stepter’s phone location data and call records in order to identify any “co-conspirators” or “patterns of criminal activity.”
Five days later, Scottsdale police arrested Stepter again, this time for perjury and forgery, both Class 4 felonies. Police alleged that he had “submitted false information” regarding the status of his prior convictions and active warrants.
Since Stepter was accused of committing another felony while out on bond for the 2016 case, the court determined that Stepter was not eligible for release and could not be bailed out. He’s been in jail ever since.
“He has an addiction that he has tried to overcome many times, once succeeding for over 10 years,” Brian’s mother, Kathaleen Stepter, wrote to a judge in July. “I beg you to have mercy on my son.”
The prosecutors in Stepter’s case, Tessa Hustead and Stephen Walker, have taken numerous actions to ensure that he receives the harshest sentence possible for his crimes. In both the 2016 car rental case and the 2019 perjury case, they filed motions that alleged over a dozen aggravating circumstances (which enhance the penalties if convicted) and brought up all of Stepter’s prior convictions, which also permit prosecutors to seek a longer sentence.
In June, Hustead filed motions to exclude certain evidence at trial. She asked the court not to permit: any reference to Stepter’s potential punishment (including saying he is facing a long sentence or a 12-year sentence), any reference to his physical and mental health issues, any reference to the fact that he was shot and subsequently hospitalized and diagnosed with PTSD, and any argument that he had committed “minor crimes” or a possessed only a “small amount” of cocaine.
Hustead even asked the judge to “preclude any and all mention of George Floyd, Dion Johnson, Breonna Taylor, and/or any other person shot by police officers,” arguing that references to racial injustice “have no place in the Defendant’s trial.”
In June 2020, Stepter was convinced by an attorney to take a plea deal, since he was facing the threat of a far longer sentence at trial. He pleaded guilty to unlawful failure to return rented property, possession of narcotic drugs, and perjury.
Under the agreement, Stepter would have been sentenced to a total of eight years in prison. But Stepter and his supporters hired a new attorney who filed a motion to withdraw the plea. In October, the judge allowed it, noting that Stepter had added the initials “BC” next to his actual initials, “BS,” in every paragraph of the plea agreement.
“According to the defense, Vi Coactus (V.C.) is a Latin term meaning ‘having been forced’ or ‘having been compelled,’” Judge Rosa Mroz wrote in a judgment granting the motion to withdraw the plea. Stepter’s lawyer claimed that Stepter had written “BC” because he did not know it was supposed to be “VC” and was trying to indicate that he entered the plea agreement under duress.
“The Court notes that no one at the change of plea proceeding questioned Defendant about these extra initials,” Mroz wrote. “The Court finds that the Defendant’s plea was not entered into voluntarily.”
With Stepter’s plea revoked, he is now facing a significantly longer sentence at trial. He’s been in jail awaiting trial for almost a year and a half.
“To me, it’s a modern day lynching,” said Marlene Thompson, a friend of Stepter who has been helping him fight the charges. “Honestly, I had to look at the American flag hanging in the courtroom to remind myself this is America.”
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