Seventh civil rights lawsuit in past year filed against Huntington police

By Lawrence Smith | Aug 30, 2013

HUNTINGTON - Another Huntington police officer is accused of falsely arresting a person for recording his on-duty actions.

The City of Huntington and the Huntington Housing Authority are named as co-defendants in a seven-count civil rights lawsuit filed by Xavier Tyreese Thomas and his brother, Martin Xavier Thomas. In their complaint filed Aug. 22 in U.S. District Court, the Thomases allege Officer Brian Lucas arrested Xavier for watching him conduct a traffic stop at a convenience store last year and detained Martin for filming the arrest on his cell phone, which was deleted by another officer.

The suit comes on the heels of a settlement reached earlier this month between the City and another resident who alleged three officers falsely arrested him for filming them perform a traffic stop at a housing project two years ago.

According to the suit, Martin, at around 1 a.m. on Aug. 3, 2012, picked Xavier up from his janitorial job at Marshall University. Afterwards they drove to the nearby Speedway on Hal Greer Boulevard.

When they pulled in, Lucas had an unspecified vehicle pulled over on a nearby gas pump, the complaint says. After walking into the store with Martin to make a purchase, Xavier walked back to their truck, sat in the passenger seat and watched Lucas deal with motorist he pulled over, the complaint says.

Upon becoming aware Xavier was observing him, the suit alleges Lucas became irate, and instructed Xavier to “look away” and “mind his own business” since what he was doing “isn’t a freak show.” When Xavier replied he wasn’t doing anything wrong, Lucas then held up his handcuffs, walked over to him and instructed Xavier to “get the (expletive deleted) out of the vehicle.”

According to the suit, as Lucas and Xavier were exchanging words, Martin walked out of the store and to the truck. Though he complied with his demand to unlock the door, Martin pulled out his cell phone and began recording the altercation between Lucas and Xavier, it says.

After Lucas opened the passenger door, the suit says Xavier “grabbed onto the steering wheel of the truck to prevent extraction and physical abuse by police.” After Lucas removed Xavier from the vehicle, but not before “ripp[ing] his shirt and chok[ing] him inside,” he, with the assistance of Officer Todd Veazey, “dragged [Xavier] several feet from his vehicle before performing a ‘leg sweep’ technique against [him] smashing his face into the ground,” the suit says.

While this was allegedly occurring, Martin continued to record with his cell phone. However, after an unspecified number of HPD officers arrived on the scene, Martin was placed in handcuffs, his cell phone was confiscated and the footage of the altercation between Xavier and Lucas was deleted after the phone was passed around among the other officers, the suit says.

Following a search of his truck, Martin was released but allegedly warned by Lucas “he would get warrants and come back later and lock the whole family up.” According to the suit, Xavier was first transported to HPD headquarters where he was “continually berated and cursed at,” before taken to Western Regional Jail and booked on charges of public intoxication and obstruction.

In their suit, the Thomases aver Lucas, under oath, created false facts in the criminal complaint he filed against Xavier. Despite video surveillance obtained from Speedway showing he wasn’t intoxicated or attempting to interfere with the traffic stop, Xavier maintains Lucas pressed forward with the criminal charges.

According to the suit, following a bench trial on Feb. 22, Magistrate Johnny McCallister directed a verdict in favor of Xavier on the public intoxication charge, finding no evidence to support it, and found him not guilty on the obstruction charge.

In their suit, the Thomases make claims against Lucas for unlawful seizure of person and property, excessive use of force, unlawful taking of property, assault, battery and malicious prosecution. Also, they make claims against the City and HHA for negligent hiring, retention and supervision.

Along with unspecified damages, attorneys fees and court costs, the Thomases seek a court order requiring the city to create a new policy on the proper use of leg sweeps and the elements for charging someone with obstruction. They are represented by Huntington attorneys Richard W. Weston and Connor D. Robertson.

The case is referred to Judge Robert C. “Chuck” Chambers.

Records show the Thomas suit is the seventh filed in the last year alleging civil rights violations by one or more HPD officers. That includes one filed by Joseph Pneiwski, a self-proclaimed investigative reporter who alleged in his suit filed in August 2012 that officers Dana Cowell, James Leist and Ryan Bentley falsely arrested him on charges of obstruction a year earlier in the course of filming them conducting a search of a vehicle in an alleyway off Northcutt Ave., near the Fairfield West housing project.

Though a settlement was reached on Aug. 1, the City has yet to publicly disclose the terms and has not responded to repeated Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by the West Virginia Record.

Two weeks ago, Ashley Dale Ellis brought his civil rights suit to a close by voluntarily dismissing the City and two detectives and settling his remaining claims with the State Police, which was named as a co-defendant.

In his suit, Ellis claimed at an unspecified time in May 2011, a task force consisting of state troopers, Cabell County sheriff’s deputies, Barboursville police and HPD officers, including detectives S. Bills and S. Hinchman, all dressed in SWAT gear, arrived at his home on 1st Ave. to serve a warrant. In the course of doing so, Ellis alleged the officers woke him out of bed, and began to repeatedly strike him in his “face, abdomen, and genitals” with their “fists, feet and batons” despite posing no treat to them or attempting to flee.

In a separate case pending in Cabell Circuit Court, Bobby Trout alleges eight unidentified HPD officers entered his home with a warrant, woke him out of bed, forced him to the floor, where they battered and beat him. According to his suit, the single charge of obstructing filed against him was dismissed in magistrate court.

A trial is scheduled for April 24.

In another lawsuit pending in Cabell Circuit Court, Zachary Grove alleges following his arrest on several misdemeanors two years ago, he was beaten, without provocation, by Officer Ronald Lusk and four unidentified officers. Also, he alleged the officers attempted to conceal video evidence proving he did not attack them.

Claims of an unprovoked beating are at the center of a lawsuit filed in January by William Daniel Hedrick, Jr. against the City and Officer Christopher Merritt. In his suit, Hedrick alleged after arresting him for “several misdemeanors” on Jan. 11, 2011, Merritt began “forcibly manipulating” his arms for the purpose to “intentionally cause him pain” and then began beating him with his baton, which caused severe bruising to his ribs, buttocks and ankles.

The charges against Hedrick, auto tampering, fleeing on foot, obstructing and public intoxication were all dismissed in magistrate court the following August.

A trial is scheduled for March 11.

Finally, similar to Xavier Thomas, Gregory Evans alleges in a suit filed in March, Officer Joseph W. Koher on St. Patrick’s Day 2012 not only improperly performed a leg sweep on him after pulling him over for suspicion of driving under the influence, but also charged him with obstructing afterwards. In his suit, Evans alleges both the DUI and obstructing charges, which were eventually dismissed, are part of “pattern and practice” by Koher to pad his arrest record.

In both 2010, and 2012, the Governor’s Highway Safety Office named Koher as its DUI Officer of the Year. According to the Office, Koher made 251 DUI arrests last year, including Evans’.

A trial is scheduled for July 15.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 13-cv-22159

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