Huntington Police, City Sued for First Amendment & Civil Rights Violations Arising from Video Taping Police Officers

Updated 5 years ago by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
Huntington Police, City Sued for First Amendment & Civil Rights Violations Arising from Video Taping Police Officers

A federal civil rights suit has been filed against three officers of the Huntington Police Department and the City of Huntington alleging excessive force, illegal search and seizure, first amendment violations, false arrest, and for using the crime of "obstruction" as an "add on" to charges or in this case "where no crime has been committed." The complaint among other allegations  challenges the actions as "unconstitutional warrantless arrest and detention."

According to the plaintiff's attorneys, "[Joe] Pniewski’s phantom arrest for “obstructing” was not an isolated incident.  HPD officers have repeatedly used the obstructing charge as an add-on to other charges, or as in this case, a reason to arrest without any criminal activity being committed."


The complaint was filed August 24 in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

According to the complaint,  Joe Pniewski had been in a public location with a video camera. He taped one or more Huntington police officers. Although he cooperated with them by moving back from the officers location, they allegedly arrested and handcuffed him, refused medical attention, erased the tape, and necessitating that plaintiff  break the police car window to summon medical attention. He  was admitted to Cabell Huntington Hospital.

The complaint states: "An ambulance was called and Mr. Pnewiski was transported to the hospital where he was treated for his chest pain, elevated CK and myoglobin enzyme levels, and wrist lacerations from handcuffs placed too tight."

While hospitalized, one officer obtained three arrest warrants for disorderly conduct, destruction of property and obstructing. He was jailed following his treatment at Cabell-Huntington.

Criminal charges were dismissed against the plaintiff by a special prosecutor. 

The City of Huntington faces alleged liability for not providing proper training, not properly supervising, and not properly disciplining its officers. The actions allegedly violate state law in placing the city liable for negligent hiring, negligent retention an negligent supervision. State law claims alleged against the officers include invasion of privacy, outrage, false arrest, illegal imprisonment , assault and battery, and conversion.

Video taping and photographing of public duties of law enforcement officials has been a right in jeopardy since the events of 9/11. The taping by journalists became an issue during the Occupy protests in some of the nation's cities, such as New York. However, the A.C.L.U. recently won/settled a case in the District of Columbia which mandates that officers in that jurisdiction  be informed of a citizens right to photograph and tape.

Among the demands of the U.S. District Court  suit are that the Huntington Police Department receive proper training related to First Amendment expressions:

 Affirmatively sets forth the First Amendment right to record police
2.  Describes the ranges of prohibited responses to individuals observing
of recording HPD officers;
3.  Clearly describes when an individual’s actions amount to interference
with police duties;
4.  Provides clear guidance for supervisory review;
5. Describes when it is permissible to seize recordings and recording
B.  Order the City of Huntington to create a new policy on the crime of
obstruction that:
1. Affirmatively sets forth the First Amendment right to record police
2. Informs the HPD officers of the element of “obstruction” in West
Virginia, provides examples of applications of facts to the elements and
provides examples of actions that are, and are not, obstruction. 

The plaintiff also asks for damages to be determined by jury and reasonable attorneys fees.

The plaintiff is represented by Richard Weston, Connor Robertson and Courtney Craig.

A suit outlines a grievance and begins the litigation process.  Legal protocol normally dictates that  defendants not comment on pending litigation. The defendants have 20 days to respond to the allegations. A jury trial has been demanded. Similar to the principle that one charged is "innocent until proven guilty," at the early stages of civil litigation, well pleade facts are accepted as true, although they will be challenged by defense and for legal sufficiency in the legal process known as 'discovery,' which includes depositions (testimony taken under oath).  Disputed facts are determined by the jury; the judge determines the facts in relation to the law. The public court documents are downloadable via PDF. HNN has not named the three officers in its main story.

  1. Summons (125.38 KB)
  2. Full Complaint (136.3 KB)
  3. Civil Cover Sheet (251.27 KB)
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