HUNTINGTON – A Cabell County man, a self-proclaimed investigative journalist, alleges police trumped up charges against him in an effort to squelch his reporting on their activities.
The city of Huntington is named as a co-defendant in a civil rights suit filed by Joseph Pniewski. In his four-count complaint filed Aug. 24 in U.S. District Court, Pniewski, 57, of Huntington, alleges HPD officers lacked grounds to arrest him last year when he was filming them conducting a search outside a housing project.
According to the suit, Pniewski witnessed three HPD officers conducting a search of a vehicle, and its occupants in an alley off Northcott Court in the Fairfield West project on Sept. 29. In his capacity as a "freelance investigative journalist," Pniewski, who lives nearby on Daulton Avenue, began filming the search.
Shortly thereafter, Pniewski was approached by Officer Dana Cowell who inquired what he was doing. In response, Pniewski said he was "videoing for the purpose of community
response and to assess if the officers were conducting their job properly."
According to the suit, Cowell instructed Pniewski to "'go around the corner.'" Though Pniewski backed up a "significant distance," Cowell again instructed him to go around the corner.
At that point, Pniewski inquired if he was not allowed to film the search to which Cowell replied "Yes." After that, Pniewski backed away further.
When Cowell again ordered him to leave the area, Pniewski offered to back up even further, and inquired why he had to leave. According to the suit, Cowell said he was concerned for his safety.
To help alleviate his fears, Pniewski offered Cowell to search him. Instead, Cowell arrested him saying "'it's this simple, I told you to leave the area.'"
After being placed in the crusier, Pniewski asked Cowell to call 911 as he was experiencing chest pains. When Cowell denied his request, Pniewski then kicked the rear passenger window of the cruiser, and demanded medical attention.
Eventually, Pniewski was taken via ambulance to Cabell Huntington Hospital and "treated for his chest pain, elevated CK and myoglobin enzyme levels, and wrist lacerations from handcuffs placed too tight."
According to the suit, Officer Ryan Bentley took possession of Pniewski's video camera after Cowell arrested him. Shortly thereafter, he, Cowell and Officer James Leist huddled around it before one of them erased the footage he shot.
Despite the allegations one of the officers erased the encounter, a six-minute video of the search leading to Pniewski's arrest is posted on YouTube, and linked to Photography is Not a Crime, a pro-First Amendment Web site.
While at the hospital, Cowell went to Cabell Magistrate Court and obtained arrest warrants for Pniewski on charges of destruction of property, disorderly conduct and obstructing. Though the suit does not specify who, two HPD officers arrested Pniewski following his release from Cabell Huntington the next day.
Records show he was released Oct. 1 after posting $9,000 bond.
According to the suit, Lincoln County Assistant Prosecutor James Gabehart, who was appointed as a special prosecutor in the case, dismissed the charges on Jan. 12. Court records show Cabell Prosecutor Chris Chiles on Dec. 20 recused himself, and all his assistants from the case as a result of Pniewski making prior allegations of misconduct against them.
In his suit, Pniewski maintains the arrest violated his First, Fourth, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights. Also, though he does not provide specifics, Pniewski alleges the "phantom arrest" on the obstruction charge is routine practice of HPD "as an add-on to other charges, or as in this case, a reason to arrest without any criminal activity being committed."
As a result of his arrest, Pniewski alleges he's incurred not only "medical expenses and lost wages," but also suffered "loss of enjoyment of life, annoyance, aggravation and psychological distress." Along with ones for civil rights violations, Pniewski makes claims against the city and Cowell, Leist and Bentley, who are named as co-defendants in the suit, for either negligent hiring, retention and supervision or assault and battery, illegal imprisonment and invasion of privacy.
In addition to unspecified damages, attorney's fees and court costs, Pniewski seeks a court order compelling to city to implement a policy instructing police officers on the First Amendment right citizens have to record them performing their duties, and the proper elements to charge someone with obstruction. He is represented by Huntington attorneys Richard W. Weston and Connor Robertson with the Weston Law Office, and Courtenay Craig.
The case is assigned to Judge Robert C. "Chuck" Chambers.
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 12-cv-4675 (Pniewski civil); Cabell Magistrate Court, case numbers 11-M-5859-5861 (Pniewski criminal)