On Thursday, September 4, the Transformers fan who was accused of impersonating a police officer was vindicated after Magistrate Richard Bloom dismissed the case against him during a brief hearing at Quincy District Court.
Zhang Zhijun, a 23-year-old civil engineer from Braintree, received a summons last month after he was stopped by police for driving around in a 2010 Maserati he had decorated to look like Barricade, a character from the Transformers.
The vehicle bears some resemblance to a police cruiser, but says “Decepticons” – the name for the villainous, shapeshifting, alien robots from the Transformers universe – where most cruisers would have the name of the police department. The vehicle also says “to punish and enslave” in lieu of the usual police motto, “to serve and protect.” The vehicle has no lights or sirens on it that could be used to pull motorists over.
Zhijun would have faced up to a year in jail and a $400 fine if the case went before a jury and he was convicted.
Lieutenant Kevin Ware, the police prosecutor, read from the police report, which describes how Officer Blake Holt pulled Zhijun over because he was not aware of the Braintree police having any Maseratis. Ware said the vehicle had stickers on it that said “Police” and “Emergency 9-1-1 Response.”
“It would be very hard for the public to make a differentiation” between the Maserati and a police cruiser, Ware said.
Ware said Zhijun told police that he was doing them a favor because people slowed down when they saw his Maserati, but this claim was disputed by the defense and Bloom said there was no evidence for it.
Ware insisted that allowing Zhijun to drive around in his Maserati had the “potential to go seriously wrong” and alluded to a kidnapping in Avon that he said was perpetrated by someone pretending to be a police officer.
Ware conceded that Zhijun had not directly represented himself as a police officer to anyone, but suggested that the police had “intercepted” him before he was able to.
Ware said Zhijun was doing a “disservice” to the people of Braintree by driving around with a “disguise” on. He said he was surprised someone with such a high level of education displayed a “lack of common sense.”
At one point during the hearing, Zhijun said he had removed some of the stickers that police had a problem with from the vehicle and Ware said this showed “consciousness of guilt,” but Bloom bluntly told him that wasn't a valid conclusion.
Russell Matson,* the attorney representing Zhijun, said that his client was being needlessly dragged into court over an “art project.”
Matson pointed to the statute which Zhijun was accused of violating, which states that it only applies to someone who “falsely assumes or pretends” to be a police officer and “acts as such or requires a person to aid or assist him in a matter pertaining to the duty of such officer.”
Matson said Zhijun was not accused of misrepresenting himself as a police officer to anyone or of attempting to exercise any police powers, so the law was not applicable.
Matson pointed out that police departments auction off retired police cruisers to the public. He also said that if the law was interpreted the way the police wanted it to be, people could be arrested for wearing police costumes on Halloween.
Bloom seemed amused by the case despite not being familiar with the Transformers. He laughed when he looked at the pictures of the Maserati, saying “This is unbelievable.”
At one point, Bloom asked Zhijun how much he paid for the car. Zhijun said he bought it second-hand for about $80,000.
Ultimately, he agreed with Matson that the law had not been violated. “The key word in the statute is 'acts,'” Bloom said.
Still, Bloom cautioned Zhijun, saying people might get concerned if they saw Maserati and report it to the police. "He's gonna have himself a problem," Bloom said.
“The clerk magistrate decided that [Zhijun] was not a threat to public safety, which I think was the right decision,” Matson said outside the courthouse. “It was pretty clear that there was no violation of the statute here.”
“There was no harm here. It was a lot of wasted time and energy and I think this really ran the risk of the police looking very silly,” Matson said.
But it would probably be fair to say that the police looked worse than silly throughout this case.
Ware, for instance, displayed an extreme lack of professionalism during the court hearing. At one point, he interrupted his presentation to yell at a man sitting in the gallery and demanded that he leave the courtroom, accusing him of talking. The man responded that all he had done was cough. Bloom attempted to calm Ware down and told the man that he could stay.
Last week, when we went to the Braintree police station with a camera to ask about the Transformers case, Lieutenant Karen MacAleese told us we didn't have the right to record her voice without consent. In reality, there is no law in Massachusetts that makes it illegal to record anyone without their consent and the First Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled multiple times that people have a clearly established First Amendment right to record police and other public officials.
MacAleese refused to tell us her name or show us her police ID card (as required by state law). She was not wearing a badge or name tag when she spoke to us. We later determined her identity by calling the police department.
The Transformers case isn’t the first controversy the Braintree police have found themselves in the midst of in the past few weeks. Last month, Cape Cop Times reported that Braintree police had arrested a medical marijuana patient, taken cash and medicine from him, and refused to give it back after being ordered to by a judge.
Instead of harassing Transformers fans, shaking down medical marijuana patients, and making up fake laws to try to intimidate journalists, the Braintree police should focus their limited time and resources on real problems plaguing their community such as unsolved murders.
The Braintree police shouldn't be lecturing anyone about common sense until they can show a bit more of it themselves.
Watch our previous video about this story here:
*Disclosure: The Bay State Examiner has published writing by Russell Matson in the past.