Former Montgomery cop sues city for wrongful termination

By Lawrence Smith | Oct 15, 2010

CHARLESTON – A former Montgomery police officer named as a co-defendant in several civil rights lawsuits has filed a lawsuit of his own alleging was fired without justification.

Shawn Hutchinson filed suit against the city of Montgomery in Kanawha Circuit Court on Sept. 27. In his complaint, Hutchinson, 23, alleges the city failed to provide him notice of or a hearing related to his termination as a police officer in September 2008.

The termination came in the midst of allegations that Hutchinson and his former partner, Matthew Leavitt, violated the civil rights of a mixed-race couple following a traffic stop and subsequent arrest for DUI. The incident led to a civil suit against the city, and Leavitt later pleading guilty to federal civil rights charges.

Firing follows complaint

According to his suit, Hutchinson, a Cannelton resident, was hired as a police officer in March 2008. At the time, he was paid $11.50 an hour.

Six months later, Hutchinson was out of a job. Then-Montgomery Police Chief Pete Lopez hand delivered to Hutchinson on Sept. 29, 2008, a letter dated Sept. 27 from Mayor James Higgins that the city did not wish to continue his employment beyond the initial six months probationary period.

Hutchinson's termination, records show, came two days after Twan and Lauren Reynolds complained they were the victims of a racially motivated arrest. In a subsequent lawsuit they filed, the Reynolds' allege Hutchinson and Leavitt used racial slurs in the course of arresting them after stopping them at the Montgomery 7-Eleven on suspicion of DUI.

Twan is black, and Lauren, his wife, is white.

The suit accused Levitt of beating Twan with a slap jack when he tried to explain to him that Lauren had not been drinking. The suit also accused Leavitt of licking Lauren on the back of the neck after both she and Twan arrested and taken to the Montgomery Police station.

The charges were later dismissed.

After he was first put on administrative leave, and subsequently fired, Leavitt, was indicted via information on two counts of violating the Reynolds' civil rights. After pleading guilty to the charges, he was sentenced last year to a year in prison on each charge, and ordered to surrender his law enforcement certificate.

In his suit, Hutchinson maintains despite his participation in the Reynolds incident, he was fired without the city first, notifying him of the reason for his termination, and second, providing him a hearing to contest the termination. According to the city's rules for disciplinary action, which Hutchinson cites in his suit, before any disciplinary action can be taken against an officer, "the police department shall give notice to the police officer that he is entitled to a hearing on the issues by a hearing board."

Since the city did not do that, Hutchinson alleges his rights of due process were violated, and he was improperly terminated. As a result, Hutchinson claims he has suffered both "substantial financial harm" and "damage to his reputation."

Hutchinson seeks unspecified damages. He is represented by former Kanawha County Prosecutor William C. Forbes.

The case is assigned to Judge Carrie Webster.

Working in Chesapeake

Currently, Hutchinson is employed with the Chesapeake Police Department. He is one of four full-time police officers including Chief Jack Ice.

According to Ice, Hutchinson was hired on April 9, 2009. After starting at $8.25 an hour, Ice said Hutchinson now earns $9.25 an hour.

Though he was aware of some of the allegations leveled against Hutchinson in some of the lawsuits, Ice said he hired Hutchinson because he was the only person who applied for the job when the vacancy became available, and he was a certified law enforcement officer.

"If we get a certified officer," Ice said, "we're very lucky."

Unlike agencies with a civil service board, Chesapeake does not routinely advertise vacancies for openings on the police department, Ice said. Like most small towns, he said a vacancy is announced via word-of-mouth.

Also, because he is certified, Ice said Hutchinson did not have a probationary period.

Nevertheless, routine background and reference checks were performed on Hutchinson before he was hired, Ice said. Though he couldn't speak to all that happened with him while in Montgomery, Ice said, given what he's seen out of Hutchinson thus far, he "was a victim of circumstances."

"Before Shawn was hired, he was checked out," Ice said. "He had no pending criminal charges and he was recommended by the [Reynolds'] attorney."

"He has done a good job here," Ice said.

Hutchinson is also as student at WVU Tech studying public service administration.

Kanawha Circuit Court case number 10-C-1728

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