Aloni Bonilla uploaded one of the close to 82,000 YouTube videos with headlines that promise to show “police brutality caught on tape.”
"220lb. OFFICER BEATS UP WOMAN INSIDE A HOSPITAL," reads the headline for the 20-minute video Bonilla uploaded on March 9, 2013. But Bonilla’s YouTube video is different from most of the videos that claim to show police officers using excessive force: she’s also the victim.
Bonilla, a fourth generation self-identified Chicana, was on her way to spend the night at a friend’s house to be closer to an early morning math final at California State University Los Angeles. But before she arrived, Bonilla was pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence.
In the early morning of March 21, 2012, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) officer took Bonilla to the hospital for a blood sample after a breathalyzer at the scene found traces of alcohol. In California, it’s illegal to operate a motor vehicle with blood alcohol content at or above 0.08 percent and Bonilla’s sample registered .139. Bonilla agreed to providing a blood sample for a more accurate reading at the hospital, according to court documents obtained by Fusion.
But the blood sample was never taken because a physical altercation took place between Bonilla and the CHP officer.
Bonilla was charged with driving under the influence, vandalism, resisting arrest and failure to provide a driver’s license. Through a court order, Bonilla obtained the surveillance shot in the hospital.
Bonilla claims the 20-minute video uploaded to the video sharing site shows the officer using excessive force and contradicts statements made in the police report. She took the officer to court to dispute the charges in the police report that Bonilla says the video proves are false.
The officer contends that Bonilla waved her arms around and approached him to try to head butt him. The video shows the CHP officer pushing Bonilla against the wall and then forcing her to the floor. He then pins Bonilla down with his knee.
Bonilla ended up with a black eye from hitting a wall-mounted medical device, according to court documents. Today, she has five slipped discs in her spine and neck she says were a result from the altercation with the officer.
Bonilla was confident that if a jury saw the video they would side with her. But the judge denied the use of the video as evidence in the case because there was an 11-second gap in the video.
How the video ended up on YouTube
“I was in the third day of my trial and when I heard they were not going to use my video,” Bonilla recalled. “I said, ‘Well, if the court isn’t going to acknowledge my video, then social media will.’”
Bonilla posted to YouTube and used the site’s video annotation feature to add a minute-by-minute breakdown.
YouTube and other online video sharing platforms have allowed people who are not immediately credible sources or witnesses more credible sources with video.
“Online video democratizes things. It allows everyone to have an audience, if the audience is willing to watch it,” said Karen North, director of University of Southern California’s Annenberg Program on Online Communities.
“You post something on YouTube because you feel wronged, you’re angry and you want to rally up the public,” added North. “Then it’s justice by public opinion.”
But North warns it’s not a foolproof system.
“Because video can be altered or be taken out of context, the accuracy and the interpretation are not necessarily perfect,” North said.
According to court documents, the judge rejected the video as evidence against the CHP officer citing the 11-second gap was “right at the beginning of the incident so we don’t have the initial contact of the incident,” and thus, “it does not accurately depict what it purports to represent.”
The 18:53 minute surveillance video provided to the court by the hospital had gaps that were several seconds long throughout the video, including the 11 seconds right before the altercation between the officer and Bonilla.
“We did respond to the document request in full and in accordance with our policies, procedures and also in conformance with the law,” a spokesperson from the Citrus Valley Medical Center – Queen of the Valley Campus, where the incident took place, told Fusion.
The spokesperson said the missing gap could possibly have occurred because the hospital has surveillance cameras that are triggered by motion sensors. However, they could not comment or provide details about the specific camera that shot the footage obtained by the court.
The CHP denied Fusion’s request to interview officer Jose Ramirez, the California Highway Patrol officer seen in the video but they provided a statement.
“She was injured as a result of being combative with the officer,” Juan Galvan, public information officer for the CHP, told Fusion. Galvan refused to comment on the video Bonilla uploaded to YouTube.
“We did receive a complaint of allegations of excessive force. It was investigated and the officers were exonerated of those allegations because they were not substantiated,” Galvan said.
Still, Bonilla’s defense attorney maintains the video didn’t show any of the events described in Officer Ramirez’s testimony.
“You’ll see the video for yourself. It shows Ms. Bonilla sitting down. She never gets up,” Bonilla’s defense attorney told the jury, according to court records. “She never starts yelling. She never is flailing her arms. She’s just sitting down there. The police officer for whatever reason starts talking to her and gets mad at her. You’ll see in the video he slams her to the other wall and after that he slams her to the floor.”
The jury that convicted Bonilla never saw the video.
The impact of the conviction
In June 2013, Bonilla graduated from California State University at Los Angeles with a degree in mathematics, though a year behind schedule prior to her arrest. She hoped to teach math one day, but with her criminal record, now she can’t even find consistent tutor work.
The YouTube video has garnered Bonilla media attention. "La Opinion," the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the U.S., wrote a feature story about her case after a journalist found her video on YouTube. Other local and national Spanish-language outlets have covered her story too.
Fusion is the first English-language news publication to share Bonilla’s story.
On Feb. 6, three judges at the L.A. County Superior Court heard Bonilla’s appeal case. She’s fighting for a new trial to get the four charges charges dropped and she wants the video to be used as evidence.
The judges will make their decision in the next two weeks.