Harassment by Clay deputy leads to civil rights suit

By Lawrence Smith | Dec 10, 2009

CHARLESTON - Following two years of alleged harassment and brutality at the hands of a sheriff's deputy, a Clay County man has filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Clay County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Belt is named as a co-defendant in an eight-count civil rights lawsuit filed by Robert Morton in U.S. District Court in Charleston. Morton's suit also names Jeff Ryder, another deputy, Clay County Sheriff Randy Holcomb and the Clay County Commission as co-defendants.

In his complaint filed on Nov. 9, Morton alleges Belt repeatedly harassed him, including making repeated stops for traffic violations that led to no citations or arrests. The harassment, Morton alleges, stems from a request he made of Belt to refrain from staining his carpet during a visit to his home in November 2007.

Request leads to beating

According to his suit, Holcomb instructed Belt and Ryder to go to Morton's home in Maysel on Nov. 14, 2007, to retrieve personal items belonging to one his children who was residing with his ex-wife. Holcomb informed Morton that Belt, who is related to Morton's ex-wife by marriage, and Ryder would be at his home around 3:30 p.m.

However, Belt and Ryder did not arrive at Morton's home until 9:40 p.m. Upon their arrival, Morton alleges he went into his bedroom, sat on his bed and "politely asked them to remove their boots so as not to stain the white carpet in his home."

Though Ryder complied, Belt did not. Belt, the suit alleges, became enraged, and retorted " 'F-ck you and your white carpet.'"

Immediately thereafter, Morton alleges Belt entered his bedroom, and struck him approximately 10 times with the butt of his flashlight. Belt continued to brutalize Morton by throwing him against a dresser, and repeatedly strike him in the face.

During the ordeal, Morton alleges that Ryder did not intervene. The suit is unclear as what happened next, including when Belt and Ryder left Morton's home.

Nevertheless, Morton alleges Belt continued to harass, intimidate and brutalize him until as recently as this Fall. One such incident occurred on Sept. 28 when Morton says while at the Clay County courthouse, Belt pushed him to the floor.

Another came on Oct. 28 when Belt stopped Morton on suspicion of driving under the influence. Though he never asked Morton to take any field sobriety tests, Belt said he was going to "'jerk'" him out of his car.

According to the suit, Morton was not arrested following the stop. The stop, Morton alleges, was one of several Belt unnecessarily made on him during the last two years.

Also, Morton says word got back to him from several people that Belt said he intended to kill him. On more than one occasion, Morton says Belt made a gesture with his hand as though he pretended to shoot him.

In his suit, Morton alleges Belt's actions violated his constitutional rights. His rights were further violated by Ryder, Holcomb and the Commission as a result of their "deliberate indifference" to Belt's acts.

One of 'numerous' victims

Both Holcomb, and the Commission not only failed to properly train and supervise both Ryder and Belt, but also investigate Belt's "long-standing history of physical violence toward citizens of Clay County, West Virginia." Though no specifics are provided, Morton alleges prior to his first altercation with Belt in November 2007, other citizens lodged "numerous complaints" against Belt for excessive use of force.

In addition to ones for constitutional violations, Morton makes claims against the defendants for intentional infliction of emotional distress, unlawful detainment and negligence. As a result of Belt's excessive use of force, Morton alleges he's suffered a fractured right cheek bone and eye socket, injuries to his neck and various cuts, abrasions and bruises.

Because of this, Morton maintains in addition to medical expenses, he's suffered "great physical, embarrassment, mental anguish and distress." In his suit, he seeks unspecified damages, interest, court costs and attorney fees.

He is represented by Robert M. Williams with the Charleston law firm of Maroney, Williams, Weaver and Pancake.

Records show, the Commission on Dec. 3 replied to Morton's suit. In its answer, filed by Wendy E. Greve with the Charleston law firm of Pullin, Fowler, Flanagan, Brown and Poe, the Commission either denied, or said it did not have sufficient information to admit or deny, Morton's allegations.

In addition on ones for qualified and absolute immunity, the Commission asserted a defense that they are not liable for any of Morton's alleged injuries since he was armed by someone else, and acting outside his or her lawful authority.

The case is assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Mary Stanley.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 09-cv-1229

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