SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — As he traveled a historic trail with a pair of mules, John Sears says the California Highway Patrol violated his right to intrastate travel and his “ages-old nomadic way of life” when he was arrested in January last year.
Sears filed suit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court last week seeking, among other things, to compel CHP officers to be trained to know that mules have a right to public roads.
“I think that police do not see mules very often, and often are unfamiliar with the applicable vehicle and AG codes,” Sears’ attorney Todd Cardiff, of San Diego, said in an interview. “Of course, not every law enforcement interaction is negative.”
Often referred to as “Mule Man” but sometimes just “Mule,” Sears, 73, often prompts double takes from motorists throughout the state. A California character, Sears is described as a land wanderer and public land activist and claims to have traveled with mules for over 30 years.
While his mules have pleased many passersby eager for unique selfies, they have also caused run-ins with law enforcement. That’s what happened near Paso Robles on Jan. 23, 2020, when several motorists along the historic Juan Bautista de Anza Trail called police, claiming the mules were a safety hazard.
The CHP said Sears was walking in the middle of the road with two mules, named Little Ethel and Little Girl, when he was stopped by police. After he was initially warned to stay off the road, he was later arrested.
A CHP spokesperson declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
“Mr. Sears stated he had no intention of walking on the shoulder and claimed he had a right to be in the roadway,” the CHP claimed in a press release at the time. “It was everyone else’s responsibility to slow for him.”
Cardiff said CHP dash cam footage shows the mules were not in the middle of the road, as the CHP suggested. While one of the mules encroached the lane by a few feet, he added, the state vehicle code permits that and actually requires motorists to slow down or stop.
The suit named the CHP and officer David Agredano as defendants. Agredano arrested Sears for failure to comply with a lawful order of a peace officer, but the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office announced a week later that it would not pursue charges.
“Mule was traveling across America as he has done for many years, bothering no one, minding his own business,” Sears' criminal defense attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, said afterward, praising the decision to drop charges. “America’s roads are designed for its citizens, its cars, its horses, its mules, its pedestrians, its travelers. Let’s share our roads and be mindful that some of us move a little slower on them. Mule teaches us that life is not a sprint, but a marathon.”
While the criminal case ended there, Cardiff filed a lawsuit on behalf of Sears, saying it was necessary to “allow plaintiff to travel freely without interference or interaction with law enforcement.”
The road where the incident occurred, Nacimiento Lake Drive, is part of the Juan Bautista de Anza Trail, a National Park Service Historic Trail named after one of the founders of Spanish California, who traveled with his own mules in the 16th century. Claiming Sears intends to protect his way of life, Cardiff’s lawsuit offers a bit of a history lesson, dating mule travel back to ancient Egypt and noting its role in U.S. Western expansion. Sears himself offers such lessons on his website, 3mules.com. On his site, Sears says he and his mules walk 5 to 20 miles per day, “depending on availability of water and feed and the general conditions of the mules and my assessment of their energy level and how much we traveled the previous day.”
A slight man, listed at 5 feet 8 inches tall and 118 pounds in a previous citation for illegal camping, Sears has frequently been featured by the media as a Don Quixote-style throwback — a philosophical wanderer on a journey to nowhere in particular.
According to the lawsuit, Sears just wants to continue his travels, arguing the U.S. Supreme Court has equated travel with liberty. The suit notes California’s vehicle code acknowledges that mules, horses and other animals are allowed to be ridden on public roads.
In addition to seeking damages, Sears seeks injunctive relief to prohibit the CHP from arresting him while traveling public roads with his mules. He also seeks reimbursement of the $266 he paid to claim his impounded mules.
According to his blog, Sears also sees the incident as a public relations campaign.
“The Mules see this case as a great opportunity to bring attention and awareness, through discussion and education to the rights, duties, and responsibilities of all those (motorists, equestrians, cyclists, pedestrians) who use and share the public thoroughfare,” he wrote.
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