A police officer who works for a department under scrutiny for aggressive ticketing and a series of controversial arrests has been charged with domestic violence.
The charges against Milton police officer Andrew Lawhon were uncovered during an ongoing investigation into the town’s policing practices by the Police Accountability Report (PAR), the weekly investigative show we host on The Real News Network. Lawhon is facing one count of misdemeanor domestic battery related to an incident that occurred in his home in Barboursville, West Virginia, on Feb. 7.
Court documents state that Lawhon struck his partner’s face with an open hand, then grabbed her legs to prevent her from leaving their home. Lawhon was released on $2000 bail.
Misdemeanor domestic battery carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
Prior to the publication of this article, Milton Police Chief Joe Parsons did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Lawhon’s current employee status and whether he still has police powers. In West Virginia, anyone convicted of domestic violence charges is prohibited from carrying or possessing a firearm.
Milton residents continue to come forward with complaints about the police department of the small West Virginia town in response to our reporting on the dubious arrests of Coty Cecil and Caleb Dial. A follow-up PAR investigation also found that Milton has markedly increased fines and court fees while ramping up policing spending.
In 2012, Milton collected roughly $234,577 in court fees and fines while its police department budget was $484,000. Over the next decade, the fees and fines nearly tripled, reaching roughly $600,000 in 2020. Meanwhile, police spending has nearly doubled to $1.1 million in 2019.
An analysis of similarly sized towns in West Virginia found that Milton has the highest police spending among its peers.
These numbers first came to light during PAR’s investigation into the arrest of Coty Cecil in December of 2021. Cecil parked his RV in a private campground when Milton police conducted a raid. On a video livestreamed during the incident, Cecil repeatedly asked police for a warrant. The officers outside Cecil’s front door repeatedly assured him that a warrant was forthcoming, but did not provide it at the scene. So far, according to Cecil, that warrant has not materialized, though he said he did find an application for a warrant in his RV after he was released from jail.
Police confiscated roughly a dozen immature marijuana plants from the trailer—grown in his home state of Michigan, where they are legal—along with grow materials, a checkbook, business cards, and books on how to cultivate pot. Cecil was charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession with intent to distribute, and transportation of a controlled substance over state lines.
Since Cecil’s arrest, several other questionable cases involving Milton officers have been brought to our attention.
Caleb Dial was charged in August 2021 for resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and felony evasion after he called police to a relative’s home to mediate a domestic dispute. That was the official account from the Milton police, at least. However, a Ring camera on the front porch captured the encounter and showed Dial was not combative or disorderly. Based on the unearthed Ring camera video, prosecutors dropped all charges and asked Dial to not sue Milton police.
Dial does not intend to grant prosecutors’ request and has vowed to hold the department accountable. “I am currently looking for an attorney,” he told PAR.
The controversial arrests and increased ticketing have come as the town government has prioritized policing, residents say.
Sources told PAR the city council received monthly reports listing the number of tickets written by individual officers. PAR has filed a West Virginia Freedom of Information Act request for copies of those reports, along with a more detailed breakdown of the court fines and other law enforcement-related fees.
The tactics regularly employed by the Milton police department have made life harrowing for some residents of the small town near the border of West Virginia and Kentucky, according to testimonies shared with TRNN. A vast majority of residents who have contacted PAR with claims of police harassment have expressed fear of retaliation for coming forward, a sentiment Dial says is justified.
“Milton is a very small town, and if you’re poor in that town, it’s hard to go anywhere in the city and not encounter an officer,” Dial said. “With officers blatantly behaving how they do and consistently and constantly getting away with what they do in Milton, I can understand why people are fearful.”