A small West Virginia police department, already under scrutiny for ratcheting up the number of traffic tickets issued, is now facing a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing it of not properly training officers to follow the law. The lawsuit also alleges Milton police officer Keith Higginbotham falsely arrested Caleb Dial and violated his rights by imprisoning him without probable cause in August of 2021.
The lawsuit was filed after Police Accountability Report published a story depicting Dial’s arrest. The story featured Ring doorbell camera footage that contradicted Higginbotham’s sworn statement that Dial had been “yelling” and “pushing” and was uncooperative during the arrest, which occurred outside Dial’s family’s home. Higginbotham had responded to the residence after Dial called police following a dispute with his father.
The doorbell camera depicts Dial calmly complying with Higginbotham as the officer places him in handcuffs. However, Higginbotham wrote in his statement of probable cause that 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.”
To see the video, click here.
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.
Prosecutors dropped charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest after Dial’s lawyer submitted the Ring camera footage as evidence. The disparity between the officer’s statements and the video evidence is at the heart of the lawsuit.
Lawyers for Dial say Higginbotham violated Dial’s right to due process and protection from false imprisonment. The lawsuit cites roughly 10 actionable counts and seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.
But the lawsuit also goes beyond the individual actions of Higginbotham, and alleges the town’s lack of proper training, and poor supervision, of officers precipitated Dial’s arrest.
The lawsuit accuses the city of training officers “on searches and seizures that, on their face, violate the Fourth Amendment.” The suit also claims the city should have known its lack of adequate training would result in false arrests.
“The aforementioned defendants [the city of MIlton] implemented otherwise facially valid customs and policies in a manner such that constitutional violations were likely to be and were visited upon those inhabiting, visiting, or otherwise within the jurisdictional limits of Milton, West Virginia, including Mr. Dial.”
The latter claim is consistent with the complaints shared with PAR by residents of Milton and the surrounding area. Motorists say they have been pulled over multiple times by police who stand watch on a nearby highway and at stop signs throughout the city. They also claim that Milton officers aggressively enforce traffic laws with the intent to increase the city’s ability to assess fines—an allegation backed up in part by the city’s own financial records, which show roughly a tripling of fines and court fees since 2012.
In 2012, Milton collected roughly $234,000 in court fees and fines; its police department budget at the time was $484,000. Over the next decade, the fees and fines nearly tripled, reaching $600,000 in 2020, according to the official city budget report. Meanwhile, police spending nearly doubled to $1.1 million in 2019.
Lawyers representing Milton did not respond to the lawsuit by addressing the discrepancy between the video and Higginbotham’s charges directly, but by instead arguing that the veteran officer was not working in his official capacity for the city when the arrest occurred. They also stipulated that Higginbotham was entitled to qualified immunity from the suit, a legal precedent that holds public officials harmless for violating constitutional rights that are not “established” at the time of the incident. The legal precedent allows officers to avoid liability if they were unaware of the right in question at the time of the alleged violation.
An email requesting comment from the law firm representing the city was not returned.
Milton residents say they are all too familiar with the town’s emphasis on aggressive policing.
Lynda Jenkins says she has been pulled over three times within the past year for a variety of reasons, including an incident in the nearby town of Barboursville where Higginbotham detained her over an outstanding warrant for passing a bad check. Jenkins told the officer she had already paid the debts and the warrant had been rescinded by the court. She suspects that aggressive tactics are the result of the city trying to bolster revenue through fines.
Jenkins told PAR: “I couldn’t understand why a Milton police officer would follow me all the way to Barboursville. I pulled over and it was officer Higginbotham. This is the third time he has pulled me over this year, and it has cost me hundreds in court costs and fines. I lost my car to the impound lot because I can’t afford to get it out of the impound.”
But her encounter also led to an arrest and to police posting her picture on the department’s Facebook page, which has embarrassed her family, she told PAR.
The department has been criticized for posting pictures of arrestees on Facebook, subjecting them to ridicule and scorn prior to adjudication of their case. Jenkins said a post of her arrest has been shared dozens of times and received multiple negative comments.
The use of Facebook to publicize arrests was the subject of extensive reporting by Kyle Vass. Vass’ article focused on the suicide of Milton resident Jacob Napier shortly after he was arrested and his picture was posted on Facebook by the department.
Dial’s lawyers told PAR they hoped the suit would prompt the department to improve both training and supervision of police officers.
“We look forward to helping Mr. Dial have his day in court,” Bradley Dunkle, one of two attorneys representing Dial, said. “Obviously, Mr. Dial’s life has been greatly impacted by these events. Thankfully Mr. Dial’s doorbell camera, unlike Officer Higginbotham’s report, accurately shows the August 27, 2021, events.”
“If the public has any additional evidence and information relating to this case, we’ll gladly speak with them,” he added.