BY JOHN O'BRIEN
CHARLESTON - Not that he hasn't always, but Charleston attorney Jason Huber will be on his best behavior from now on.
That happens when an attorney is acting as counsel for a man suing his hometown's police force and representing nine other individuals in cases that could make the Wayne County Sheriff's Department look borderline incompetent.
"I'm a law-abiding citizen," Huber said, laughing, "regardless of what cases I'm filing."
Still, don't expect to see Huber pushing the speed limit, playing high-stakes poker or doing anything else that could draw the law's attention. After all, his clients claim that being law-abiding citizens didn't help them avoid trouble.
Jeffrey Mark Bricker turned to Huber, of the law firm Forman and Huber, and filed his lawsuit against the City of Charleston, Corporal Pridemore and Officer Edwards May 24 in Kanawha Circuit Court, alleging that Pridemore and Edwards savagely beat and arrested him while he was having a diabetic episode.
Bricker says he was driving in Charleston when he went into diabetic shock, and his truck grinded to a halt on a guard rail. Pridemore dragged him out of the car and, according to the complaint, "unleashed a punishing attack on him which included punching the plaintiff in the stomach, kneeing him in the ribs and repeatedly striking him in the back of the head."
All because, Bricker says, he was unable to comply with Pridemore's request to get out of the truck. When Edwards arrived, Bricker says he was struck with a Tazer electroshock gun and arrested.
He was charged with driving under the influence, five counts of resisting arrest and five counts of obstructing an officer.
All those charges were dropped by a Kanawha County magistrate. Bricker, who was 42 years old at the time, had to receive medical treatment.
"It was disturbing to learn an individual who is suffering a health crisis would be subject to this degree of force," Huber said. "Mr. Bricker suffered permanent physical and psychological injuries as a result of the force."
Huber said he seems to remember a similar lawsuit that ended with a settlement stipulation ordering city police to undergo training on dealing with diabetic emergencies, and it might have been ignored.
Rod Blackstone, assistant to Mayor Danny Jones, and City Attorney Paul Ellis both declined to comment on the lawsuit.
"My client's goal is to obviously receive fair compensation, but most importantly to make sure this doesn't happen to anybody else again," Huber said. "That's why we're so focused on trying to force the department to undergo training for individuals who have diabetes."
Huber's other police business also seeks injunctive relief requiring training, though this one involves constitutional violations allegedly committed during attempted drug busts in Wayne County.
Filed in U.S. District Court in Huntington, the cases of nine individuals all represented by Huber claim the Wayne County Sheriff's Department, led by Sheriff Dave Pennington, conducted illegal drug-buying operations and executed unlawful arrests.
The lawsuit of Shannon and Joetta Hatfield names five Sheriff's Department employees, Chris Bowens, Todd Elliott, Travis Poff, Pennington and Rex Varney, as defendants, as well as the Sheriff's Department itself.
It alleges that the Sheriff's Department hired Thomas Osborne, a man facing felony criminal charges in Boyd County, Ky., to act as a confidential informant.
By giving Osborne money to buy drugs and equipping him with an audio recording device, the Sheriff's Department hoped to obtain proof against drug dealers. Instead, the Hatfields' case alleges that Osborne brought his own counterfeit drugs, pocketed the Department's money and passed the fake stuff on to the Department, claiming he purchased it from the suspect.
It also says he intentionally distorted the audio of the recording device so that the Department would be unable to tell what happened during the alleged drug deal.
The Department took Osborne at his word, though, and began arresting people. When Shannon Hatfield arrived at his general store in Fort Gay on June 13, 2003, he says the police put an assault rifle to his head, handcuffed him so tight it made his wrists bleed and placed him under arrest before sticking him in a police cruiser with the windows rolled up for approximately 90 minutes with the air conditioner off.
The police found no drugs or drug paraphernalia at the store, but indicted Hatfield anyway. He spent a night in jail and witnessed a 19-year-old hang himself in the same cell.
Eventually, Osborne pled guilty to obtaining money by false pretenses and is still serving a sentence in Kentucky.
Meanwhile, people like the Osbornes, who had charges against them dropped in May 2004, are looking for compensation. The Osbornes say the police ransacked their store, ate and drank the products for sale without purchasing them and destroyed 30 padlocks, a refrigerator, a sectional sofa and their son's truck.
"I think the lawsuit is one step in a very, very long process for these individuals to fight to regain their good names," Huber said.
The good name of the police involved may have trouble being restored, though, if Huber is successful. The fact that the charges against the Wayne County nine and Bricker were dropped bodes well for him.
Much of Huber's practice deals with the abuse of power by authorities, and he helped win a case five years ago for a man arrested in Dunbar while he was suffering an episode brought on by his neurological disability.
The settlement included a stipulation that Dunbar police undergo training to keep similar incidents from happening again.
"I think that most police officers are well-intentioned public servants," Huber said, "but I think that a lack of training in respect to the constitutional limits which apply to law enforcement is a significant problem."