Breaking News
More () »

JSO officer exhibited 'unbecoming conduct' during traffic stop of Black veteran

The man was pulled from his car and handcuffed, but not ticketed. He accused the officer of racial profiling.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A Jacksonville officer with history of combative traffic stops demonstrated “unbecoming conduct” when he arrested a Black military veteran in November.

An Internal Affairs report obtained by First Coast News shows the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office concluded Officer Justin Peppers "has demonstrated a history of repeated infractions of JSO orders.”

As First Coast News has previously reported, Peppers has been flagged in court complaints and by local prosecutors for a confrontational style and unreliable explanations when it comes to use of force.

The recent investigation was sparked by a complaint filed against the officer by Braxton Smith who said, “I was unlawfully pulled off and dragged out of my vehicle with no probably [sic] cause, and my car was searched without my permission.” 

Smith’s complaint was one of at least 14 received by the department regarding Smith’s arrest, after video of the incident surfaced.

"Either he didn't know he was violating Mr. Smith's rights, or he flat out did not care," said Paul Husselbee, who filed one of the complaints.

According to the internal affairs report, Smith was pulled over for excessive window tint, but didn’t immediately pull over. The report says he drove 875 feet, or .17 of a mile, before stopping.

Body camera shows that after he pulled over, Smith tossed his keys out the window for police to see, and held his arms out the driver’s side window. Despite the fact that Smith "complied," according to JSO, he was pulled out of his vehicle, handcuffed while Peppers kneeled on his back, and placed in a police car. Peppers and other officers who arrived also searched his pockets and his vehicle without permission.

“I haven’t been pulled over with this level of aggression in a long time,” Smith can be heard saying on the body worn camera recording.

Smith tells Peppers he was holding his driver’s license and registration out of the window. “That’s the shit y’all are supposed to ask [for] when you first pull someone over, right? Y’all didn’t do none of that, come on."

“Shut our mouth, don’t get all fu*king loud with me,” Peppers responds

When Peppers asks why Smith didn’t stop immediately, Smith says, “Listen, I am a Black man in America. I am terrified of the police.”

“OK Mr. Black man, I am asking you a question,” Peppers responds.

According to the IA report, Peppers admitted that response was inappropriate, but said he was just being sarcastic. The report concluded the comment was not biased-based.

The report* also exonerated Peppers for stopping, restraining and searching Smith, actions investigators said were based on probable cause and “all done within JSO policy and in good faith.” However, investigators did find Peppers' use of profanity unacceptable, and reminiscent of an earlier investigation.

“Internal Affairs finds that Peppers has repeatedly demonstrated a lack of ability in refraining from the use of coarse language while speaking with the public in tense situations.” 

The report cites an August 2022 encounter. First Coast News obtained a copy of the report, which says he told a suspect, “don’t fucking move, face the car right now. Just cuz you’re pregnant don’t mean you can act like a fuc*ing ass. Stand there and don’t fuc*ing move.” That investigation noted, “At the time of Peppers’ statement, Harris was not actively resisting.”

As First Coast News previously reported, the State Attorney’s Office flagged Pepper’s conduct last year after prosecutors found his reports “inconsistent” with his body cam video. In two cases, Peppers claimed a suspect resisted with violence when he actually instigated the violence. Prosecutors were forced to drop both cases.

Even before then, Peppers' history of confrontational traffic stops was a matter of record. In 2021, a couple he ticketed for excessive tint three times in two months accused him of stalking and harassment. The couple called 911 on Peppers twice, and even obtained a restraining order against him, before a judge rescinded it days later.

Police investigators also reviewed a use of force incident in September 2019, when a man Peppers was arresting appeared prepared to spit. After struggling to place a spit mask on him, Peppers ultimately punched the handcuffed man in the face, twice.

“Stop. This is recording,” an officer said, pointing to his body camera. “Don’t punch him … Let him go, let him go Peppers. Peppers let him go! Don’t punch him.”

In May, First Coast News reviewed Peppers’ Internal Affairs history, which includes 21 complaints from both inside and outside the agency since the start of ’21. Only three complaints were “sustained” following an investigation, and none resulted in significant discipline.

First Coast News requested Peppers’ updated discipline history, but it was not immediately available. Peppers has declined several previous requests for comment made through JSO.

Crime and safety analyst Mark Baughman said Peppers needs a new beat. "I think he needs a change of scenery. I don't care where you put him at, but put him in another location for a little. Let him drive in an area that's less crime ridden. He could get into an area with less stress, pressure, whatever."

According to JSO, Peppers is working in a different zone -- District 5, on the Westside. A JSO spokesperson referred questions about what discipline Peppers received to its public records department, which has not yet provided those records.** We will update this story when that information becomes available. 

* The new IA report shows investigators also spoke to other officers who responded to the November traffic stop, including Officer Axell Pugh. As body cam shows, Pugh took Smith’s phone and turned off the Instagram Live recording that Smith had activated when he was first pulled over. Pugh said he turned it off “for officer safety reasons,” in case Smith had asked someone to come to the scene.

**An earlier version of this story said, "JSO did not say what punishment he faces.” 



Before You Leave, Check This Out