Tampa police seek reckless driving charge against man who drove through July 4 protest

Police say Noah Armstrong, 21, drove a Ford Crown Victoria through the intersection of N Dale Mabry Highway, forcing two protesters to jump out of the way to avoid being hit.
A car drives through the crowd of protesters blocking N Dale Mabry Highway and W Spruce Street in Tampa on July 4.
A car drives through the crowd of protesters blocking N Dale Mabry Highway and W Spruce Street in Tampa on July 4. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Aug. 25, 2020|Updated Aug. 25, 2020

TAMPA — Police are pursuing a reckless driving charge against a man they say drove through a protest on N Dale Mabry Highway on July 4, forcing people to jump out of the way to avoid being struck.

Investigators turned over the case to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office on Aug. 18, recommending that prosecutors pursue a criminal case against 21-year-old Noah Armstrong, said Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan.

“Even though you’re not allowed to block streets as pedestrians, you can’t just recklessly drive through people,” Dugan said. “We just felt like there was an intent there and that’s why we decided to refer this to the State Attorney’s Office.”

Dugan said investigators collected multiple videos of the incident and took statements from two “reliable and impartial” witnesses.

According to a probable cause affidavit, Armstrong also admitted to the offense during an interview with investigators.

Grayson Kamm, a spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren, said the office cannot comment on active criminal investigations.

Armstrong, of Tampa, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Calls to multiple phone numbers for listed relatives were not answered or returned and no one answered the door at a home address for Armstrong listed in the affidavit.

The incident happened on a hot, tense holiday marked by protests against police brutality on both sides of Tampa Bay.

The affidavit says Armstrong was driving a 2004 Ford Crown Victoria south on N Dale Mabry Highway when he approached W Spruce Street about 12:25 p.m. A group of protesters had gathered there, blocking the intersection with their vehicles.

Armstrong maneuvered around a parked sedan to continue south, the affidavit says.

“As the defendant drove around the white four door, he continued south into the intersection where two protesters were forced to jump out of the way of the defendant’s vehicle to avoid being hit,” the affidavit states. “The defendant traversed over the intersection of Dale Mabry and Spruce Street, which caused other protesters to move out of the way.”

Florida law defines a reckless driver as “any person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” The charge is a second-degree misdemeanor for a first offense and punishable by up to 90 days in jail, six months probation and a $500 fine.

A video posted on Twitter shows a portion of the incident. As protesters chant, “No justice, no peace,” a gold Ford can be seen swerving around a line of stopped cars and into the right-hand turn lane and continuing into the intersection without stopping, prompting protesters to dart out of the way as others shout, “Watch out!”

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Another video taken from a different angle shows the Ford moving through the intersection and driving away.

About the same time the Ford drove through the group, police arrived and ordered protesters to leave the roadway. Many refused and instead, they began marching north. About 1:30 p.m., officers swarmed the group, pepper sprayed some protesters and arrested nine on various charges including blocking a public street and resisting arrest.

Protesters blocking streets as they call for police reform in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police has been a flashpoint in the Tampa Bay area. Activists have criticized local law enforcement agencies for not arresting motorists who drive through protests.

Related: Tampa Bay drivers have run into protesters. Why haven’t they been arrested?

It’s unclear whether a driver will face charges in a similar incident in Tampa that has drawn the involvement of one of the country’s best-known civil rights lawyers.

On June 21, someone in a red pickup drove through protesters gathered in the intersection of W Swann and S Rome Avenues in Hyde Park Village.

In one video posted on social media, the truck swerves from behind stopped traffic, tires squealing, and speeds toward the group. The video shows the driver slowing down slightly and cutting to the right, striking Jae Passmore, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, and knocking her to the ground. Passmore suffered a concussion and an injured ankle and pelvis.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump tweeted the video Thursday. Passmore and her attorney, Gretchen Cothron, have confirmed Crump has joined the legal team to help with the case.

Dugan said Tuesday that Passmore hasn’t signed a sworn victim’s statement. At this point, the department plans to turn evidence over to the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office to decide whether to prosecute, Dugan said.

Asked if police have identified the driver, Dugan said investigators have the truck’s tag number.

“Unless we can get a victim willing to give us a sworn statement, we won’t even speak to a suspect,” he said. “You have to have a victim in order for there to be a crime.”

Cothron said Passmore spoke to a Tampa police detective for two hours after the incident but didn’t feel comfortable at the time signing a document that could be used to incriminate her. Passmore also spoke to investigators with the FBI, which Cothron said is investigating the incident as a hate crime. An FBI spokesperson told the Tampa Bay Times last week that the bureau does not confirm or deny its investigations.

Passmore is also willing to speak to prosecutors at the State Attorney’s Office to provide whatever they need to move forward with the case, Cothron said.

Passmore has become well-known as a protester in Tampa over the past two months. She has broadly criticized the Tampa Police Department’s handling of protests, which has often involved use of force and the arrests of protesters, and has led calls for Mayor Jane Castor to fire Dugan. Passmore has also accused Tampa police of targeting her, which department officials have denied.

Times staff writers Josh Fiallo and Jack Evans contributed to this report.

• • •

Coverage of local and national protests from the Tampa Bay Times

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WHAT PROTESTERS WANT: Protesters explain what changes would make them feel like the movement is successful.

WHAT ARE NON-LETHAL AND LESS-LETHAL WEAPONS? A guide to what’s used in local and national protests.

WHAT ARE ARRESTED PROTESTERS CHARGED WITH? About half the charges filed have included unlawful assembly.

CAN YOU BE FIRED FOR PROTESTING? In Florida, you can. Learn more.

HEADING TO A PROTEST? How to protect eyes from teargas, pepper spray and rubber bullets.