When West Virginia resident Caleb Dial found himself in handcuffs in the back of a police car in August 2021, his mind focused on a single question: “What had I done wrong?”
“If I could use one word that did an inkling of justice as to how it made me feel, I would choose the word ‘surreal,’” Dial told The Real News. Just minutes before his arrest, Dial had actually called police himself after a dispute with his father became heated. But when an officer from the small town of Milton arrived, the first thing he did was ask Dial to turn around so he could place him in handcuffs.
Dial calmly complied. However, the longer he sat in the back of the squad car, the more his initial complacency turned to quiet panic. The officer had explained the cuffs were only for his safety. If that were true, why was he now sitting in the car like a suspect? What crime had he committed? Again, what had he done wrong?
“The string of events that had occurred on that one ‘fateful’ evening left me so bewildered [and] wondering how I went from calling them for non-emergency assistance to sitting in jail with a battered face, looking at upwards of nine years in prison,” he said. That query was soon answered in a series of charges that stunned him.
Milton police officer Daniel Higgenbotham drove Dial to the station. There he was told he had assaulted Higgenbotham, been disorderly, and tried to escape. The officer wrote in the statement of probable cause that Dial was aggressive and protesting loudly. He had allegedly cursed at the officer and acted “agitated” while Higgenbotham struggled to force him into the car.
It was a narrative Dial knew to be false. That arrest was the start of a cascading series of events that would turn into a three-year ordeal for the 29-year-old occasional musician, propelling him into a fight to clear his name, and—more importantly—a struggle to heal from the wounds inflicted by what his lawsuit alleges was a false arrest. “That evening led to a downward spiral so fast that not even F5-rated tornadoes could spiral that fast,” he said.
Dial’s story is also a story of perseverance. Three years later, in early May 2023, the MIlton police department settled a federal civil rights lawsuit with Dial. He describes the agreement, which includes compensation for injuries he suffered during the arrest, as fair, even though Higgenbotham remains on the force and the town did not admit to any wrongdoing. For Dial, the settlement has afforded a sense of closure and a deeply personal victory against the overwhelming power of local law enforcement. “I had lost employment, I lost a few friends,” he recounted. “The worst part was I wasn’t able to talk about the case.”
But it’s also a cautionary tale of how a single arrest can wreak havoc on a person’s life even if they’re innocent, and in Dial’s case, an ordeal that could have been worse if not for the presence of a Ring camera.
First there were the rumors, then a ring camera
Shortly after his arrest, the Milton police department shared Dial’s mugshot on the department’s Facebook page. The post included the questionable allegations contained in the statement of probable cause. Unfortunately, the sloppily composed statement (which has since been taken down) alluded to an alleged domestic assault. Since the Facebook page is shared widely among Milton residents, friends and neighbors began to accost Dial and his family with the accusation he had beaten a woman.
“I still had many occurrences where I was being questioned about ‘hitting some woman,’ etc.” he told The Real News. “Even some of my family members were harassed about it because the way the post was worded made it sound like they were showing up for domestic violence, which was not the case.” Worse yet, Dial found himself sitting in the Western Regional Jail for several days, where he suffered a seizure. When he finally made bail, he realized that the mainstream media had already branded him a criminal, before an iota of evidence could be offered in his defense.
Local television station WCHS posted a story accusing Dial of all the charges outlined in the statement of probable cause, accompanied by the unflattering mugshot. “There’s a saying that at times social conviction can be just as bad as criminal conviction,” Dial said in response to the post.
The combination of these accusations made for a turbulent few years for Dial. The whispering about his domestic violence charges continued. Due to court appearances and the local television report he lost his job at an inpatient rehab house. Even more disturbing, the demons that had haunted him throughout his previous struggle with addiction reappeared, sending him into a spiral of heavy drinking that nearly cost him his life. “I ended up attending treatment for alcoholism which was tremendously exacerbated by the peripheral effects that were either directly or indirectly related to everything from that evening,” he said. “On the outside it doesn’t sound like much, but this only scratches the surface.”
Fortunately for Dial, not all the forces of fate were aligned against him: his parents’ house had a Ring camera, and the video of his arrest depicted an entirely different version of events than the statement of charges, signed under oath, by Higginbotham.
The doorbell camera shows Dial calmly complying with Higginbotham as the officer places him in handcuffs. However, Higginbotham wrote in his statement of probable cause: “[Dial] became very agitated and kept on raising his voice at me. I asked him several times to calm down and then decided to detain him for officer safety.”
Furthermore, Higginbotham wrote, “Dial became very irate and pushed me with his shoulder and tried to pull away from me. I asked him to calm down, quit yelling, and get into the cruiser. He got very aggressive once again and was trying to pull away. I asked one more time and then assisted him into my cruiser.”
Again, doorbell camera footage appears to contradict the officer’s sworn statement. At the beginning of the interaction, the camera audio reveals that Dial calls Higginbotham “sir,” and when asked to turn around to be cuffed, Dial does so without conflict. The footage then shows Dial calmly walking towards the cruiser and Higginbotham putting him in the back seat without incident.
After Dial’s lawyer submitted the Ring video as evidence, prosecutors quietly dropped the charges. But the story about his alleged crimes remained, and even though Dial called WCHS to have the story updated or retracted, they, too, refused to delete the post describing now disproven crimes until well after the damage had been done. By Dial’s estimate, the post remained up on the WCHS website for two years before it was ultimately removed. Their refusal to issue any timely correction or retraction led Dial to make the decision to fight back against the false and damaging narrative that had been spread throughout his community. That meant reaching out to independent journalists.
Fighting back against a local political economy forged by law enforcement
After The Real News produced a story on Dial’s arrest, he found a lawyer: a legal advocate that he says was not influenced by the insular politics and interconnected relationships that make it difficult to find representation in rural West Virginia. “It took many months for me to be able to obtain an attorney who is seriously a true individual to his soul. Not only did he obtain some form of recourse, but he also stood up for me quite a bit,” Dial said. That attorney, Tyler Haslam, told The Real News the settlement had been reached and that the case had been closed. A lawyer representing the police department did not return a phone call or email seeking comment.
The lawsuit accused the Milton police department of false imprisonment, unlawful arrest, and intentional infliction of harm, and outlined allegations that the department failed to properly train officers to practice constitutionally sound policing. That problem was highlighted in a Police Accountability Report investigation, which found that the town had written hundreds of tickets and assessed hundreds of thousands of dollars in court fines for a town of roughly 2,500 people—all while nearly doubling police spending since 2014. It’s a trend that continues today.
The latest budget estimates posted by the town show the city billed $500,000 in court costs and fines in the fiscal year 2023, a slight decrease from the previous fiscal year. Despite the recent decrease, the amount of fines has almost doubled in the past decade; the town assessed $275,000 in court fees and tickets in 2014. This uptick in policing has coincided with a substantial increase in the police budget. Since 2014 the police budget has more than doubled, from roughly $528,000 in 2014 to a planned expenditure of $1,333,807 in 2023.
For Dial, his primary focus now is not Milton PD, but healing, and the hope that his battle to clear his name will allow him to rebuild a life that was thrown into turmoil by a pair of handcuffs. For now, the struggle is about righting the wrongs, both for him and the town itself.
“The weight of the world has been lifted off of my shoulders. All I want to do is live a quiet life with my daughter, and for the department to restructure their training,” Dial said.