A suburban Philadelphia fire chief says the volunteer fire fighter badge flashed in a viral video of a traffic stop is fake — it even gets the name of the fire company wrong.
Last month, when Tony Soto, 28, posted video of himself calmly and eloquently defending himself to a Philadelphia police officer who pulled him over because of the tinted windows of his car.
The video, viewed more than 1.2 million times, was seen by many as a triumph for the little guy. In it, Soto hands the officer a PennDOT letter that seems to allow him to have tinted windows.
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Soto then shows what is purported to be a volunteer firefighter badge as part of his identification.
“Firefighter brilliantly shuts down cop who attempts to violate his rights,” read the headline on one Internet post. But Soto was neither a volunteer firefighter, nor was the badge he flashed legitimate.
“The badge says Hancock Fire Department, but the real name is the Hancock Fire Company,” said Norristown Fire Chief Tommy O’Donnell, who was shown stills of Soto’s video by Philadelphia police.
This wasn’t the first time Soto used an emergency services badge to misrepresent himself to authorities.
In 2011, while on federal probation for selling guns to drug dealers, Soto was pulled over by Philadelphia police riding in a car that had what prosecutors describe as “police style” amenities. He showed a Philadelphia police sergeant a badge, and was released from the scene, until other police officers pulled him over minutes later.
That case was thrown out of court because a judge ruled Soto received no benefit from the badge, a move that frustrated federal prosecutors efforts to revoke Soto’s probation — though a judge in that case did order that Soto refrain from impersonating a public servant for the remainder of his probation, which ended in 2013.
Like many suburban communities, most firefighters in Norristown are volunteers, but the department has a number of professional firefighters on staff.
O’Donnell said Soto, who lives in Northeast section of Philadelphia, applied to become a volunteer firefighter, but was denied because of his criminal history.
The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police called the badge fake on its website, but declined to answer questions about how the organization knew that information. O’Donnell’s statement marks the first time an official was able to confirm that the badge is not authentic.
A spokesman for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office says Soto is unlikely to face charges for flashing the badge because of a quirk in Pennsylvania law. People who flash badges can be charged with impersonating a public servant only if they receive some benefit from doing so.
Contacted on Thursday, Soto declined to discuss the badge, saying it was a distraction from what he called “the real issue,” which he says is “this officer making a traffic stop and violating an individual’s rights.”
Philadelphia police say the officer in the video did nothing wrong. They also say that the dark tint on his vehicle likely isn’t covered by the PennDOT permit, which is used for certain medical conditions.