Raleigh County town again accused of civil rights violations

By Lawrence Smith | Jun 27, 2013

BECKLEY - A Raleigh County hamlet is once again accused of civil rights violations by its police department.

BECKLEY - A Raleigh County hamlet is once again accused of civil rights violations by its police department.

The town of Sophia is named as a co-defendant in a four-count civil rights suit filed by Erica Polk. In her complaint filed June 13 in U.S. District Court, Polk, 32 and a Sophia resident, alleges following an arrest last Fall, she was sexually assaulted by one of the town’s police officers.

Polk’s allegations come on the heels of the town agreeing to pay a six-figure settlement to its only black officer who alleged he was subjected to a campaign of harassment while on the force.

According to the suit, at an unspecified time on Oct. 15, Officer John Phillip Stevens II responded to a call regarding an altercation between Polk and one of her neighbors. As a result of the altercation, Phillips arrested Polk and transported her to town hall.

Later, the suit states Phillips returned Polk to his cruiser and transported her to the Southern Regional Jail in nearby Beaver. In the course of being transported, Polk began crying.

Afterwards, Stevens allegedly told Polk “he was in a position to help her by assisting in getting some of her problems to go away.” One way he could do that, the suit alleges, is by allowing her to let him feel her breasts.

Though initially reluctant, Polk, whose hands were cuffed in front of her, lifted up her shirt when Stevens stopped at a red light, she says. While stopped, Polk alleges Stevens groped one of her breasts until the light turned green.

Shortly thereafter, Polk says Stevens claimed he could let her go home by just writing her a citation. At an unspecified time, Polk claims Stevens pulled off “to a gated area off the main road and ordered her to perform oral sex on him.”

Despite begging him not to do anything to her, Polk alleges Stevens stopped the car, turned off his dashboard camera, exited the cruiser, opened the rear door, unzipped his pants, “grabbed her hair in his hand, and forced her to perform oral sex on him.” Later, Polk says Stevens returned to the front seat of the cruiser and proceeded to SRJ.

Prior to their arrival, he instructed Polk not to tell anyone of what happened, she says. However, the suit avers she contacted the West Virginia State Police two days later and requested they open a criminal investigation into Stevens’ actions.

As a result of his actions, Polk alleges she’s suffered, among other things, “emotional distress, humiliation, mental anguish [and] embarrassment.” Along with civil rights violations, Polk makes claims against either the town or Stevens for assault and battery, negligent/reckless infliction of emotional distress and negligent supervision/training.

Both Stevens and the Sophia Police Department are named as co-defendants in Polk’s suit.

In her suit, Polk seeks unspecified damages, attorneys fees and court costs. She is represented by R. Brandon Johnson and Paul M. Stroebel.

The case is assigned to Judge Irene C. Berger.

Three months prior to Polk filing hers, the town agreed to pay Damon McDowell $600,000 to settle a civil rights suit he filed against the town a year earlier. In his suit, McDowell alleged during his six months as a police officer he was subjected to a “racially charged, hostile work environment.”

In his suit, McDowell alleged other officers, among other things, would put pictures of monkeys or penises on the department bulletin board. Also, he alleged they would play the opening theme from the 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son” over the police radio.

Furthermore, he alleged the town via then-police chief, Tomi Sue Peck, trumped up charges of defrauding an innkeeper against him following his alleged failure to pay for a meal at Applebee’s. In his suit, McDowell claimed he never left the restaurant without paying for the meal, but instead was offered a complimentary drink by one of the bartenders.

A month prior to the settlement, McDowell was convicted of the charge, a misdemeanor, in Raleigh Magistrate Court. Currently, the decision is pending appeal to circuit court.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 13-cv-14224

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