WV Civil Rights Lawyer

Police Misconduct, Civil Rights Law

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

McPherson Case defendant, Snavely, fired as police chief of Hinton

The City of Hinton has now fired its police chief, Derek Snavely.  Snavely is the primary defendant in the McPherson v. Snavely, et al. excessive force lawsuit currently pending in the federal district court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

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From the Register-Herald newspaper this morning:

HINTON – Mayor Joe Blankenship announced Tuesday that Hinton Police Chief Derek Snavely has been terminated.

An emotional Blankenship made the announcement during a city council meeting in Hinton, not long after reports surfaced that Snavely had been placed on leave following a domestic dispute.

During his tearful speech, Blankenship said that Snavely was promoted to police chief in 2009 without his recommendation, due to the fact that he was dating his daughter, Bethany. Blankenship also stated that he has always recused himself from meetings concerning raises for Snavely.

“City code states that the office of police chief is at the will and pleasure of the mayor in every municipality, therefore I feel I cannot stand aside any longer concerning this situation,” Blankenship stated. “As Bethany’s father and best friend, I feel that I’m aware of everything.”

At the time the City of Hinton hired Mr. Snavely, Mr. Snavely was in the news for having been effectively fired by the West Virginia State Police for misconduct.  This information was also known at the time the City of Hinton promoted him to police chief. See Trooper Accused of Rape Resigns, Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20081211/ARTICLE/312119998.  He was also in the news for allegedly falsifying police records to cover up his misconduct. See Prosecutor Not Told Ex-Trooper Falsified Log, Charleston Gazette-Mail, http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20081211/ARTICLE/312119998. 

The State Police even took the unprecedented step of making a public statement about Snavely.  It was reported in the Herald-Dispatch newspaper, that the newly-appointed West Virginia State Police spokesperson said, of Snavely, “We can’t have things like this,” waving a newspaper with an article about Snavely’s alleged misconduct, stating that, “it reflects poorly on me and [the superintendent] . . . it kills me.”  He noted that it was important for the state police to do “everything we an to acknowledge and address these incidents, and then we need to move forward.” See W. Va. State Police Col. Focusing on Standards, The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com/news/recent_news/w-va-state-police-col-focusing-on-standards/article_2d9b2963-a067-59b1-93d1-ac4e8004ccfe.html.  

This was all known (1) before he was hired by the City of Hinton; and (2) before he was promoted to police chief.  I’m sure the fact that he was dating (and now married to) the mayor’s daughter had nothing to do with it.  This is not the first time a police officer resigned due to misconduct and then was hired by some small town in West Virginia.  That’s been a recurring problem across the state.

August 22, 2018 Posted by | Excessive Force, 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

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

Excessive Force Lawsuit Filed Against Logan County Deputy

The Charleston Gazette-Mail today reported on a lawsuit we filed late last week against a Logan County police officer for the use of excessive force against Mark Messer.

Here is the article:

Lawsuit: Logan deputy’s excessive force led to 17-day coma, long-term injuries

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Mark Messer was never convicted of any crime.  However, during his arrest, his life was changed forever due to having his skull crushed on the asphalt by a Logan County, West Virginia deputy.

When Johnson began to walk Messer to his police vehicle, Messer turned his head and asked Johnson, “Who do you work for, the State Police, or the county?” according to the lawsuit.

The deputy “aggressively” replied, according to Messer’s lawsuit, then tripped Messer and pushed him to the ground. “Witnesses observed Johnson purposefully slamming plaintiff into the ground, in an apparent action in response to plaintiff’s question,” the lawsuit states.

 

With his hands cuffed behind him, Messer fell face-first onto the ground, as witnesses heard his head and face “loudly crack” on the ground and saw him “immediately start bleeding profusely,” according to the lawsuit.

 

Here is a previous post on the plight of Mark Messer, from back when he was still in a coma:

In the news: our client is on life support after use of force during an arrest

Katrina Seabolt says she witnessed a Logan County Sheriff’s deputy throw her brother to the ground about three weeks ago….

Mark Messer, 54, has been on life support in a Charleston hospital ever since an incident on Mud River Road in Logan on Aug. 18.

“It’s under investigation right now,” Logan Chief Deputy Mike Mayes said on Friday. “Whenever it involves use of force, this office investigates it.”….

Messer’s family has hired Monroe County lawyer John Bryan. He said last week that no one from the sheriff’s department has reached out to the family since the incident.

“My goals are to find out what happened,” Bryan said. “I want any documentation from law enforcement about the incident.”

Mark Messer was forced to go through an extended period of rehabilitation.  He had to relearn how to walk; how to talk.  Still, he never received any communications from Logan County.  Not an apology.  Not a conclusion to their “investigation.”  Not compensation for his severe life-long medical injuries.  Fortunately, he has the option of going to the federal courts to seek justice.

April 10, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Media Coverage, Police, Police Misconduct, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

US Supreme Court takes up an excessive force case

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court issues a per curium opinion in a police excessive force 1983 lawsuit out of Arizona.  The case was Kisela v. Hughes.

There was no new law created.  Essentially, the SCOTUS was beside themselves that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals got the case so wrong.  The SCOTUS reiterated some of the basic tenants of excessive force case law and explained why the officer could not be held liable under the circumstances.

A police officer shot a woman holding a knife.  The woman was acting erratically, was within striking distance of a bystander, and ignored orders to drop the weapon.  Pretty standard case for qualified immunity.  Take the knife out of the equation, and it would be a different situation.  Take the bystander out of the equation, and it would also be different (because there was a chain link fence between the officer and the suspect).

April 3, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, Lawsuits, Police Misconduct | Leave a comment

So you want to sue the police, Part II

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled, So you want to sue the police . . . . , and it has had an overwhelming number of reads.  Well, it’s been 8 years since then, and I’ve learned a lot  I’ve tried cases since then.  Appealed cases.  Settled cases.  Won cases.  Lost cases.  I’ve reviewed probably thousands of allegations.  Since this appears to continue to be a popular topic, here is part II.

  •  Have documentation.  When people call our office about allegations of police misconduct, and/or civil rights violations, we first ask them if they have any documentation.  Here is what we need:
    • Police Report.  This could be what is referred to in West Virginia as a “Criminal Complaint.”  Or, it could be any other official report containing a narrative, or version of the events, written by a police officer.
    • Medical Records.  If the complaint is that injuries were caused by the police, we would like to see documentation of those injuries.  Was there a hospital visit, or doctor’s office visit pertaining to the injuries?  If so, you are entitled to the records, and we will need to review them.
    • Photographs.  Again, if the complaint is that injuries were caused by the police, we would like to see photographs of the injuries.
    • Video Footage.  It goes without saying that if video footage exists of the incident, we want to see it.  It may be the case that footage exists, but the police are in possession of the video.  In West Virginia, and most states, there is a right on behalf of private citizens to request that footage.  This is called a Freedom of Information Act Request, or FOIA request.   If criminal charges were filed, a defendant is going to have a right to receive a copy of the footage.
  • Don’t Wait.  In West Virginia, you generally have 2 years to file a lawsuit based on a civil rights violation.  Other states may have different statutes of limitations periods, even though they are all the same type of claim under federal law.  In some cases it could be less.  Don’t wait 2 years and then call us the day before the statute of limitations expires.  We will not take the case.  Yes, people do this.
    • Witnesses.  Witness recollection of incidents gets worse over time.  Witnesses may die and their testimony may be lost forever.
    • Evidence.  Some evidence disappears with time.  911 records and transcripts may disappear in as little as 30 days if not requested.
  • Do not make a formal complaint to the police.  At least not without acting through competent legal counsel.  Police should never investigate themselves. But that’s exactly what happens in West Virginia, and many other states.  In regards to the West Virginia State Police, in particular, and other larger agencies, this is a huge mistake that people make.  Why?
    • Witness Intimidation.  If an individual makes a formal complaint, for instance to the State Police, they are presented with a piece of paper they are forced to sign which warns them that they will be prosecuted if they are found to have given false information.  This is purely a threat meant to having a chilling effect and to scare off victims of police misconduct who would otherwise complain.
    • Interrogation.  The next thing that happens is, an “investigator” from the agency will want to interview you.  This is not an actual unbiased interview.  This is an interrogation.  They will, perhaps secretly, record the questioning.  Without a lawyer present, a detective will perform an interrogation. They will ask you leading questions.  They will essentially take your deposition, but without your lawyer present.  You will not be given a copy of the recording.  The agency will save it, and later use the recording against you in court.  I have seen it happen many times.
    • Building a defense.  The “investigator” will obtain information from you – not for the purposes of determining whether the complaint is justified, but for the purposes of undermining your allegations.  If you tell them a particular person witnessed the event, they can now go confront that person.  They can tailor their defense to counter your exact allegations.  I am generalizing.  Of course some investigators are honest and will do the right thing.  But for the purposes of protecting yourself, you should assume they are not.
    • Photographs.  If the complaint pertained to excessive force, or resulted in injuries, the “investigator” will take photographs of you.  These photographs may be taken at a time when injuries have become less visible, or healed.  They may be taken in such a way as to minimize their appearance, rather than to document the truth.
  • Call an attorney experienced in civil rights law as soon as possible.  You can’t call just any lawyer for a civil rights case.  The area of civil rights, and in particular police misconduct, is a small niche area of the practice of law. Most licensed lawyers will be inexperienced in civil rights law.  There are only a handful of competent civil rights plaintiffs’ lawyers in West Virginia who regularly handle these types of cases.  I often get referrals from other lawyers across West Virginia who encounter clients with civil rights complaints. There are special aspects of the law in these types of cases that have nothing to do with automobile accident cases, or even criminal defense cases.  Make sure whichever lawyer you call can demonstrate a record of successfully handling these types of cases.  For years, I have been teaching other lawyers, government leaders, and law enforcement administrators, seminars on the law of police liability and civil rights litigation.

March 29, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Lawyers, Police, Police Misconduct, Searches and Seizures, Trials | Leave a comment

Several of my Federal Lawsuits Against West Virginia State Police Troopers In the News

A couple of days ago, the Charleston Gazette-Mail did an expose’ story on a series of 4 lawsuits against a West Virginia State Trooper.  3 of those lawsuits were my cases. They are now settled.

Accusations, lawsuits mount against WV State Police trooper

Four men have sued the same West Virginia State Police trooper in federal court over the past 18 months, alleging he beat them and caused broken ribs, concussions and spinal damage.

Senior Trooper Ralph Justus has been on paid administrative leave for a year, as he is the subject of an active internal investigation, according to State Police. No allegations in the lawsuits line up with the March 2017 administrative change.

Two of the men who sued Justus, Aaron Akers and Antonio Tolliver, settled their lawsuits last December for a combined total of nearly $190,000. Justus allegedly beat the two men in the hallway of the State Police detachment in Welch, beyond the range of building security cameras. Their settlements note they are resolutions of disputed claims, and the defendants are not admitting liability.

Another alleged victim of a hallway beating from Justus, Michael Ferguson, signed a settlement agreement for $75,000 earlier this month. A judge still needs to formally dismiss the case.

A funny part of the story, at least in a sad-funny sort of way, is that the defendant trooper was named “Policeman of the Year” by a local American Legion post.  This was for 2017.  According to the article, he was on administrative leave for  9 months of 2017, presumably due to allegations of misconduct.  Low bar, I guess.

Frank Cooley, a member of the post, spearheaded efforts to find a state trooper to award. He said while he did not remember Justus by name, the post generally makes its picks by calling a branch’s commandeer, asking for recommendations and voting on the shortlist internally. Two lawsuits had been filed against Justus months before the post issued its award.

Frank, you had ONE JOB.

 

March 26, 2018 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, John H. Bryan, Lawsuits, Media Coverage, Police, Police Misconduct, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New Summary of the Sawyer v. Asbury Opinion

I just went back through the Sawyer v. Asbury opinion in this post on the Use of Force Source.  If you have followed the case on this blog, it’s interesting to take a step back and analyze the Court’s ruling as it finds its place in Fourth Circuit excessive force case law.

April 9, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liability, Excessive Force, Governmental Liability, John H. Bryan, Judges, Juries, Lawsuits, Lawyers, Police, Police Misconduct, Trials | Leave a comment