Lawsuit filed against police chiefs, officers
By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY - Four people have filed a lawsuit against Salisbury and members of its police department, claiming officers conducted illegal searches and abused their authority. A hearing in the case is scheduled in Rowan County Superior Court at 10 a.m. Monday. The defendants' attorney, Scott D. MacLatchie of Charlotte, will ask the court to split the lawsuit into separate complaints and will also ask to dismiss the case, according to court filings. Brothers John and Michael Fox, Felicia Gibson and Robin Otto Worth Jr., all of Rowan County, are suing Salisbury Police Officer Mark Hunter, former officer Kareem Puranda, former police chiefs Mark Wilhelm and Rodney Harris, current Chief Rory Collins, and the city, according to the lawsuit filed June 28. The lawsuit is based on three separate arrests involving Hunter, Puranda or both. The lawsuit alleges officers at the department practiced unlawful searches and seizures between June 2009 and September 2010 and that officers "grossly misused their authority." The action doesn't ask for a specific amount of money. It says the plaintiffs are seeking in excess of $10,000, which is standard language in civil superior court lawsuits. The lawsuit contends that Puranda and Hunter have been involved in a number of questionable incidents. Police chiefs and Salisbury city officials have been "actually or constructively aware of these customary and pervasive practices, yet repeatedly failed to stop or correct them," the lawsuit says. MacLatchie, the defendants' attorney, confirmed his clients will ask the court to split the lawsuit into separate lawsuits at the Monday hearing. He declined to comment further. When asked about the lawsuit, Chief Collins provided this written statement: "I am familiar with this matter. As you probably know, it is currently in the litigation phase and therefore, the subject of court proceedings. That being said, while I will gladly give further comment regarding this matter when the time is appropriate. I am unable to respond further at this time." Collins said Hunter had the same response. Former police chief Mark Wilhelm, now a Rowan County magistrate, declined to comment. Puranda and former chief Rodney Harris could not be reached for comment. Charge from traffic stop On June 18, 2009, the complaint said, Robin Otto Worth Jr.'s vehicle was stopped for a faulty brake light. Officers "patted down" Worth and searched his vehicle and trunk, the complaint said, for which they had "no legal justification." The complaint said Worth left the scene because "he was not under arrest or under any legal duty to remain" with the officers during the search. Worth "made his presence known" to officers when they came looking for him inside the G-Rocks Laundromat in Salisbury. The suit said Puranda hit Worth "in the face and head with his department-issued pistol." Worth also contends in the lawsuit that Puranda punched, kicked, pepper-sprayed and used a Taser on him. "Worth was so afraid and so physically injured by Defendant Puranda's attack that he urinated on himself," the lawsuit said. According to the complaint, Worth was "bleeding profusely" and was later treated at Rowan Regional Medical Center. He returned to the hospital a second time after being discharged because of problems with vision and persistent headaches, the complaint said. Officer Hunter lied twice in the official police report on the incident, the lawsuit alleges. Hunter wrote he was granted permission to search the vehicle during the traffic stop, the complaint said, and Hunter also said he saw Worth fighting with Puranda in the parking lot of the business when he arrived. Both assertions are false, the lawsuit alleges. Hunter remains on active duty with the Salisbury Police Department. Puranda left the agency in March 2010 and has faced legal issues since his resignation. Charlotte attorneys Jacob Sussman and S. Luke Largess are representing Worth, Gibson and John and Michael Fox in the lawsuit. Sussman represented the Fox brothers and Gibson in their criminal cases. He also was involved with an earlier lawsuit against Puranda. In that case, Wayne Partee of Salisbury claimed police brutality and unreasonable searches and seizures. Puranda resigned from the department shortly thereafter. The city settled the lawsuit in January 2011 for $60,000 Sussman declined comment Tuesday on the more recent lawsuit. Puranda is also facing a federal investigation. On May 7, 2012, the U.S. Attorney's Office filed a complaint against Puranda. That complaint appears to reference the June 2010 incident involving Robin Otto Worth Jr. It refers to the victim involved as R.O.W. and says Puranda, acting as an on-duty officer, "punched and kicked" the man, which "resulted in bodily injury." Brothers at La Bamba The lawsuit from June was filed in Rowan County Superior Court nearly two months after authorities dropped charges against Michael and John Fox, two brothers who were arrested in 2009. The Foxes were taken into custody during a dispute inside the former La Bamba night club on Klumac Road. According to the lawsuit, Michael Fox was dancing with his girlfriend inside the club when Puranda approached and ordered Fox to put his hands behind his back. Puranda refused to tell Fox why he was placed in handcuffs, the lawsuit said. Puranda then hit Fox in the face "with what appeared to be a handheld radio or walkie-talkie, which badly bloodied Michael Fox's head," the lawsuit said. Then, despite Fox being handcuffed, the lawsuit claims Puranda, Hunter and other law enforcement officers continued to hit him "without cause or justification." Fox was accused of threatening officers and was also charged with resisting arrest and punching Puranda in the mouth, the lawsuit said. When John Fox approached the scene to check on his brother, the complaint said, he was also "punched repeatedly." "Puranda had to be physically restrained by at least one other law enforcement officer in order for the assault on John Fox to stop," the lawsuit said. John Fox received the same charges as his brother. Charges against both brothers were dismissed in May. Gibson: Rights violated Felicia Gibson was arrested Nov. 21, 2009, after Hunter executed a traffic stop in front of her West Fisher Street home. Gibson stood on her porch recording the incident on video. But after a few minutes, Hunter told Gibson, her boyfriend, father and next door neighbor to go inside. The lawsuit said Gibson was standing about 40 feet from the traffic stop when Hunter yelled, "Can I help you?" A few seconds later, he yelled again, "Get in the house." Hunter repeated himself, the lawsuit said, and then said, "You think it's funny." Hunter arrested Gibson in her home and charged her with resisting, obstructing or delaying an officer. "I ain't being nice to the enemy," Hunter said to a fellow officer during the arrest, according to the lawsuit. In an August 2010 court proceeding, Hunter testified that he was referring to Gibson as "the enemy," the lawsuit said. Judge Beth Dixon ruled Gibson interfered with Hunter's ability to do his job as he conducted the traffic stop and convicted her of resisting, obstructing or delaying an officer. She was sentenced to probation. Gibson is claiming a civil rights violation in her part of the lawsuit. About a month after the conviction, Hunter and Gibson were again involved in a dispute outside Gibson's West Fisher Street home. Hunter wrote Gibson a parking ticket for parking her vehicle facing the wrong direction, the complaint said. Gibson asked Hunter if she could move the vehicle, but she was not allowed. The complaint said Hunter then placed the ticket on the windshield instead of handing it to Gibson, who was sitting in the driver's seat. Gibson told Hunter he could hand her the ticket, but when he did, he dropped it to the ground, the complaint said. Gibson picked up the citation but was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct as she made her way to the house. Hunter later said Gibson cursed in public, saying "f--- you" to the officer, the complaint said. On Dec. 21, 2010, the disorderly conduct charge was dismissed.Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.