WV Civil Rights Lawyer

Police Misconduct, Civil Rights Law

New Civil Rights Case Filed out of Fayette County: Sizemore vs. Members of the WV Drug Task Force

Here is the copy of a civil rights lawsuit we filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia late last week.  It has now been assigned to Judge Goodwin in Charleston, WV. The case comes out of Fayette County, West Virginia, and involves a criminal investigation and prosecution gone awry.

Sizemore Complaint

My client, Keith Sizemore, had his home searched, via a SWAT team style raid, while he and his 16 year old son were home.  In the subsequent federal prosecution, the federal judge presiding over the case ended up suppressing evidence obtained during the search, and issuing an order finding that members of the Drug Task Force had lied to the Magistrate Court of Fayette County in order to obtain the search warrant for Mr. Sizemore’s residence.  It’s really an astonishing order:

Sizemore Suppression Order

The order shines the light on what has become a common scenario: a drug raid with some sort of seizure of illegal drugs, and then there is a civil forfeiture proceeding in WV State Court, in which the owner of the items has all the items confiscated under color of law.  In this case, our lawsuit alleges that the state civil forfeiture machine had already seized and became the new owner of Mr. Sizemore’s home and 2017 pickup truck, before the criminal indictment was even served on him.  However, interestingly, the criminal prosecution exploded with the suppression order finding that the task force members lied to obtain the warrant.

I wonder what will happen?  We shall see…..

September 10, 2019 Posted by | Civil Liability, Drugs, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Judges, Lawsuits, Magistrates, Searches and Seizures, Suppression, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Braxton County Wrongful Arrest Case Working its Way through the System…. Can you lie to the police in West Virginia?

I don’t believe I ever posted on this case:

https://wvrecord.com/stories/511259277-woman-sues-braxton-county-sheriff-s-deputy-after-allegedly-being-unlawfully-incarcerated

The Rosa O’Neal Fourth Amendment case against Braxton County, and Deputy Bryce Scarbro.  This is an interesting case because it brings up what is commonly referred to as a “Franks Claim.”

In West Virginia, unless a warrantless arrest is made, that means that a police officer usually wrote out a “Criminal Complaint,” and submitted it to a magistrate for their approval.  This is basically an affidavit for an arrest warrant.  If the arrest was “wrongful,” you can’t sue the magistrate because they have absolute immunity.  You can only sue the police officer who submitted the document to the magistrate.

If the magistrate approved it, then there is basically a presumption that there was probable cause, and therefore not a wrongful arrest.  That leaves you in the position of proving that the officer who wrote the arrest warrant application included false statements, or material omissions, and that they did so with a certain degree of incompetency, or intentionally.

So generally, to sue for Wrongful Arrest in West Virginia:

  1.  If there was no arrest warrant, you can just prove there was no probable cause;
  2. If there was an arrest warrant (Criminal Complaint signed by a magistrate), then you are required to show false or misleading information was included in the affidavit to the magistrate which, had it been known to the magistrate, probably would not have been signed because there would have been no probable cause.

We are dealing with option No. 2, which isn’t easy.  So, did the police officer mislead the magistrate, and was it just a stupid or reasonable mistake, or was it really incompetent and/or done maliciously or purposefully?

Rosa O’Neal was a 66 year old lady who had never been in trouble in her life, who was physically arrested for allegedly lying to a deputy about two fairly innocuous facts.  She spent 15 hours in jail, and then was released onto the side of the road to hitchhike home.

I took the deputy’s deposition, and he claimed that it is always illegal to lie to a deputy in West Virginia, and because he’s Mr. Truth and Justice, and had her arrested.  That’s just not true.  It’s only illegal to lie to a deputy if it pertains to a material topic for an official felony investigation.  It’s not illegal to lie about a misdemeanor investigation, per se.  And it’s not illegal to lie about something irrelevant; or about something that’s not part of an investigation….

Lies to a police officer in West Virginia? Depends on what the officer is investigating:

  1. Felony Investigation:  A person who, with intent to impede or obstruct a law-enforcement officer in the conduct of an investigation of a felony offense, knowingly and willfully makes a materially false statement is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than $25 nor more than $200, or confined in jail for five days, or both fined and confined.  The provisions of this section do not apply to statements made by a spouse, parent, stepparent, grandparent, sibling, half sibling, child, stepchild or grandchild, whether related by blood or marriage, of the person under investigation.  Statements made by the person under investigation may not be used as the basis for prosecution under this subsection.  For purposes of this subsection, law-enforcement officer does not include a watchman, a member of the West Virginia State Police or college security personnel who is not a certified law-enforcement officer.
  2. Misdemeanor Investigation: A person who by threats, menaces, acts or otherwise forcibly or illegally hinders or obstructs or attempts to hinder or obstruct a law-enforcement officer, probation officer or parole officer acting in his or her official capacity is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than $50 nor more than $500 or confined in jail not more than one year, or both fined and confined.

So option 2 is your basic obstruction.  It actually doesn’t say anything about lying.

Anyways, discovery was completed in the O’Neal case.  Depositions were taken, and everything has been submitted to the federal judge, who will decide whether the evidence is sufficient to present to a jury…..

January 31, 2019 Posted by | Civil Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Magistrates, Media Coverage, Wrongful Arrest, Wrongful Imprisonment | Leave a comment

Federal Judge Rules First Amendment Civil Rights Lawsuit against Richard Ojeda will proceed

Today we finally received a ruling in the Woolsey v. Ojeda civil rights lawsuit.  Here is the order we just now received from the federal judge:

Woolsey v. Ojeda, Memorandum Opinion and Order, January 30, 2019

The federal court found that Richard Ojeda was acting under color of law when he went on his Facebook Live tirade against my client, and also that by doing so in response to my client posting a critical video, if true, it was a violation of my client’s First Amendment rights:

In sum, under the facts pled in Plaintiff’s complaint, the totality of the circumstances points to a conclusion that Defendant acted under color of state law in both posting the response video to his official Facebook page and making a phone call to Plaintiff’s employer in an effort to have Plaintiff fired. Defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint on this basis is therefore DENIED.

….

Plaintiff has demonstrated that in response to the video Plaintiff posted, Defendant contacted Plaintiff’s employer in order to pressure the owner to fire Plaintiff. Accordingly, Plaintiff has adequately pled a First Amendment violation, and Defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint on this basis is DENIED.

This is a huge win for the constitutional rights of individual citizens, and is on its way to establish a new benchmark on the application of First Amendment rights to politicians and social media…..

January 30, 2019 Posted by | Civil Liability, Elections, First Amendment, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Lawyers, Media Coverage | Leave a comment

The “Hurt” case against the West Virginia State Police and West Virginia DNR was filed, and is in the news….

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Full Version of the Hurt Lawsuit.

Charleston Gazette-Mail article from this Sunday:

WV family’s call to police ends in excessive force lawsuit

A family from Camp Creek, in Mercer County, is alleging West Virginia State Police troopers and a Division of Natural Resources officer violated their civil rights and exercised excessive force on them after they called police in 2016 to report an armed, unstable neighbor — who later called in a fake hostage situation, stole a police cruiser from a trooper and set it ablaze — according to a federal lawsuit filed last month in the Southern District of West Virginia.

“It was just like boom, out of nowhere all of a sudden my yard was filled with them, all screaming and hollering at [Lilly],” Ronnie Hurt said…..

Wills, who was on the phone with 911 during the entire incident, heard officers yelling at her father to step off the porch with his hands up. Due to health issues and physical disabilities, she knew he needed help climbing the porch stairs, so she went outside to assist.

Within seconds of Willis stepping outside, Trooper John R. Tupper and DNR officer Marshall Richards grabbed her and her father by the arms, yanking them “violently and forcefully” face-first off the porch and onto the ground, the suit reads.

“They didn’t tell me anything, nothing at all,” Wills said. “Not to put my hands up, not to hang up the phone. I didn’t even have a chance before I was on the ground.”

One officer grabbed Wills’ phone, hung up on 911 and threw it on the ground before stepping on it with his boot, she said.

 

December 18, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, Lawsuits | Leave a comment

McPherson Case makes front page news this morning

This morning, investigative reporter Catie Coyne had a great article on the front page of the Charleston Gazette-Mail about the McPherson case, and the firing of Hinton police chief, Derek Snavely.

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I’ve been doing this for awhile.  Usually after the news dies down, a fired police officer will quietly appear somewhere else – usually a small municipality or county somewhere. I’ve seen it happen again and again.  When the reporter called me about the case, I shared my frustration with her.

The Hinton police chief — who is the target of a federal lawsuit filed in December alleging that he used excessive force on a Summers County man by beating him and hitting him three times with a stun gun without provocation — was terminated this week based on his “job performance,” according to Hinton City Councilman Larry Meadow….

John Bryan, a Union-based attorney representing Robert McPherson, a man who filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia against Snavely and the city of Hinton alleging excessive force by Snavely, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the former police chief’s troubles of three weeks ago. Bryan said he had heard several people voicing concern about Snavely for a while.

“This is kind of a problem West Virginia has — if someone leaves a position, even if they should [leave] for a good reason, it’s cheaper to hire them on somewhere else instead of hiring someone who doesn’t have that certification,” Bryan said. “Unless that certification is gone, they are probably going to be picked up somewhere else.”

August 23, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Media Coverage, Police, Police Misconduct | Leave a comment

Police Chief we sued in federal court is the subject of a scathing TV news report today.

Awhile back, we filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Hinton and its police chief, Derek Snavely.  Mr. Snavely was no stranger to the media, even then. Here is the Complaint:

McPherson v. Snavely, et al.

Well, he is back in the news this morning.  Check out this TV news clip from WVNS.

WVNS – Hinton police chief on leave; forced to turn in service weapon, badge and police cruiser

August 16, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Lawyers, Media Coverage | Leave a comment

Yet another settlement by the West Virginia State Police for excessive force

State settles suit against WV State Police troopers for $150K

The state has paid a man $150,000 to settle a lawsuit over two West Virginia State Police troopers in McDowell County allegedly using excessive force.

The federal lawsuit, and settlement, is the fourth that names Ralph Justus, who is no longer employed by State Police. The state has paid about $415,000 settling those cases.

The American Legion’s police officer of the year strikes again.  I’ll bet they either stop giving that award out in the future, or they do some extreme vetting.

July 9, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Lawsuits, Police, Police Misconduct | Leave a comment

What kind of paperwork is generated during 40 years of wrongful imprisonment?

This is it.  This is the paperwork generated by the justice system during 40 years of wrongful imprisonment.

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People assume that people convicted of murder get a large amount of appeals, and have judges looking over their case to make sure everything was constitutional and fair . . . .  Nope.  This folder contains no actual direct appeal of James McClurkin’s murder conviction.

His lawyer who represented him during the 1977 trial which convicted him dropped the ball completely.  He filed the notice of intent to appeal, but never actually followed through.  Apparently he was waiting on payment from Mr. McClurkin’s family prior to filing the appeal.  However, James’ father, who had hired him initially, passed away two weeks prior to the trial, and had spent all he had on James’ trial.  The result was that Mr. McClurkin did not receive a direct appeal for his murder conviction.  The State of South Carolina filed a motion to dismiss the notice of intent to appeal based on the failure to take any action beyond filing the notice.  So the “appeal” was dismissed forever.  What followed is paperwork which mostly discusses legal technicalities such as failure to comply with deadlines, and the discussion of rules which forbid inmates from bringing up old issues.  It doesn’t appear that Mr. McClurkin ever had the assistance of a lawyer at all up until 1992, when the real murderer confessed.  Every document James filed throughout his incarceration always mentioned first that James had exhausted his appeals.  Well, he never got an appeal, and it is a fiction – a lie – that he exhausted his appeals.

The notoriously racist trial judge, Judge Moss, who in 1985 created “controversy” by using the “N word” from the bench (in response to black protestors following the conviction of a black man accused of shooting a white man – ironically similar to James’ conviction).   Here is an article I tracked down from January 28, 1985, as it appeared in the South Carolina Herald-Journal.

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This file contains almost no discussion of the evidence upon which James’ murder conviction stands.  At one point, a lawyer for the South Carolina Appellate Public Defender’s Office filed a motion to withdraw from representing James due to the case being “without merit.” He didn’t bother to mention the evidence from the 1970’s, or the lack thereof.  He didn’t even look into the 1992 confession and testimony of the real murderer.  This was 2004.  James would spend another 12 years in prison.

This should be a real wake-up call.

July 6, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Evidence, Governmental Liability, Judges, Judicial Misconduct, Lawsuits, Lawyers, McClurkin Case, Media Coverage, Murder, Police Misconduct, Prosecutors, Trials, Wrongful Imprisonment | Leave a comment

Our new mission: South Carolina man wrongfully imprisoned for murder from 1977 through 2016

We are pleased to have been hired to represent a man named James McClurkin.  James was convicted of murder in 1977.  In late 2016, law enforcement appeared at his parole hearing and testified that the old murder case was reopened, and that James was innocent.  James was released.  He was 63 years old, and had been in South Carolina prisons since the age of 18.

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South Carolina is one of the states which does not provide compensation to innocent people who are wrongfully imprisoned and then later exonerated.  Hopefully that legislation can soon be enacted in South Carolina.  But until that happens, we are working hard to compensate Mr. McClurkin for the terrible injustice which occurred in his case.

Here are some of the media accounts of his release from prison:

Chester man paroled after 39 years for crime he denies. Were wrong men convicted?

Judge says Chester men must go to S.C. Supreme Court to seek exoneration for murder

‘I am free’: Chester man in prison 43 years goes home, still hoping to be exonerated

‘The air. It smells different. Like freedom.’ Man freed after 39 years in prison for murder police now say he didn’t commit

The sheriff said he didn’t do it and he was released from prison but stigma impossible to shake.

James McClurkin and his co-defendant were convicted of the 1973 murder of laundromat attendant Claude Killian.  James, and his co-defendant Ray Charles Degraffenreid, both African Americans, were convicted under the brutal 1970’s Chester County, South Carolina justice system, which involved, among other things, a presiding trial judge who was known for using the “N word” while on the bench.

The real murderer actually confessed in 1992, which was corroborated by the fact that he was convicted of a similar murder, and by the fact that he had no alibi on the night of the murder.  However, the justice system once again failed James, and he was sent back to prison for another 25 years. Now law enforcement reopened the case, and have concluded that the real murderer was telling the truth.  How did this occur?  Well, among other issues, the mother of the real murderer was apparently the maid of the prosecutor who prosecuted James and Ray Degraffenreid.

This sounds like a novel, but it’s not.  It’s real, and it was only uncovered because a courageous new sheriff was willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt, and double check an old case.  Follow along as we jump into this case and work to reverse the wheels of justice.

IF YOU LIVE IN SOUTH CAROLINA, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR POLITICIANS AND EXPRESS YOUR SUPPORT IN PLACING THESE CASES BEFORE THE GOVERNOR OF SOUTH CAROLINA.  BOTH JAMES MCCLURKIN AND RAY CHARLES DEGRAFFENREID SHOULD BE PARDONED BY THE GOVERNOR OF SOUTH CAROLINA.

You can donate in order to assist with James McClurkin’s living expenses through the following site:

https://www.youcaring.com/jamesmcclurkin-815274

June 22, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Corruption, John H. Bryan, Judges, Judicial Misconduct, Lawsuits, Lawyers, Legislation, McClurkin Case, Media Coverage, Murder, Police, Police Misconduct, Prosecutors, Trials, Wrongful Imprisonment | Leave a comment

State trooper we sued in the news yet again

Apparently former State Trooper, Ralph Justus, made the news yet again for being the subject of a sexual assault lawsuit.  Here is my last post about him.

WV state trooper accused of sexual assault in lawsuit

A State Police spokesman said last week that Justus no longer is employed by the State Police. An agency spokesman said Monday that his termination was the product of a completed internal investigation, and that a criminal investigation is underway.

Keep in mind that when we first took this guy on, he had been named State Trooper of the Year by the American Legion.  Sometimes it just takes one victim to take the first step, and other victims come out of the woodwork.  The system did not flush this guy out by themselves.  It took outside lawyers, such as myself, to investigate him and file civil lawsuits.

May 1, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Lawyers, Media Coverage, Police, Police Misconduct, Uncategorized | Leave a comment