CLARKSBURG – A former Fairmont State University student is alleging police turned what should've been a routine report of a fender-bender in a full-fledged search of his vehicle, all because he is black.
The city of Fairmont, and two of its officers are named as co-defendants in a civil rights suit filed by Justin Byrd. In his suit originally filed July 20 in Marion Circuit Court, Byrd, 24, alleges he was unlawfully detained and searched 18 months ago following an automobile accident with a white woman.
Because of federal civil rights claims Byrd makes, the suit on Aug. 21 was transferred to U.S. District Court.
A big deal out of no big deal
According to the suit, Byrd was driving his vehicle across the Robert Mollohan Bridge in Fairmont about 2:30 p.m. on March 26, 2011. Accompanying him were two other black men, including one who, like Byrd, was a student at the time at FSU.
While stopped in traffic on the bridge, Byrd's car was rear-ended by a white female. Upon inspection, the only damage that occurred was a crack on the bumper of Byrd's car.
Shortly thereafter, FPD officers Aaron Dalton and Dave Wolford arrived on the scene. Rather than inquire about the accident, Byrd alleges Dalton and Wolford began interrogating him, and asked if he and the passengers had any guns or drugs.
Despite Byrd informing them they had neither, Dalton and Wolford began to search the vehicle. At a time not specified, an unidentified sheriff's deputy arrived on the scene, and aided in the search.
In the process of conducting the search, Byrd says he was told by Dalton in Wolford to sit in the back of their cruiser. The search included the use of a drug-sniffing dog.
According to the suit, the dog grabbed a bag by its teeth, and torn it in the process of shaking it. The bag contained Byrd's laptop computer with was also damaged.
Though he does not provide specifics, Byrd alleges the dog did other damage to the interior of his vehicle. Also, he maintains officers paid no heed to the woman, who became upset at the search that lasted nearly an hour, when she admitted the accident was her fault.
In his suit, Byrd maintains Dalton, Wolford and the Joe Doe deputy, who are also named as co-defendants in the suit, used race as a pretext to conduct an illegal search of his car. Though he provides no details, Byrd says FPD has "a history of racially motivated treatment of African-American individuals."
As a result of his encounter with the officers, and the deputy, Byrd alleges he's incurred mental anguish, medical expenses, financial loss and "[a]nnoyance, inconvenience, anxiety, humiliation, degradation, loss of freedom, loss of property, sleeplessness and loss of mental and emotional suffering." Along with civil rights, Byrd makes claims for, among other things, civil conspiracy, unintentional infliction of emotional distress, false arrest, and violation of the state's anti-racial profiling statute.
Byrd seeks unspecified damages, interest, court costs and attorneys fees. He is represented by Morgantown attorneys David M. Grunau and P. Todd Phillips.
Records show the city, Dalton and Wolford answered Byrd's compliant on Aug. 22. In it they asserted defenses that, among other things, their Dalton's and Wolford's actions "were privileged and within the scope of their employment," and they "acted at all times with probable cause and in good faith performance of their duties."
The next day, MCSD filed its answer stating, among other things, it "is not the proper party to this lawsuit...engage in any wrongdoing against [Byrd] and "did not violated [his] constitutional or civil rights."
The city, Dalton and Wolford are represented by Boyd L. Warner, Brandy D. Bell and Kristina Cecil with the Clarksburg law firm of Waters Warner and Harris. MCSD is represented by Wendy Greve and Katie L. Hicklin with the Charleston law firm of Pullin Fowler Flanagan Brown and Poe.
The case is now assigned to Judge Irene M. Keeley.
U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, case number 12-cv-132