Franklin police chief has a lot of work ahead of him

Published 10:51 am Saturday, May 16, 2015

By Lane Meredith

I read with interest the column by Ron Cornwell on April 26, 2015 (“Franklin resident questions criminal justice system”), and thought it worthwhile to add my own recent experience with the Franklin Police Department and the Commonwealth Attorney.

I was involved in an automobile accident on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014, at about 1 p.m. on Third Avenue in Franklin. Patrolman Mario Hunter responded to the scene of the accident.

Let me give you my perspective on this incident and how I was treated.

On that day I drove our Toyota van for a hair appointment at Shear Madness on Third Avenue and was backing into a parking space in front of that shop. For reasons not altogether clear the van accelerated in reverse striking with some force the car parked directly behind me and forcing that car a distance of about a car length into a third car in which a woman was sitting. That car received some minor damage. The car immediately behind me was more heavily damaged (how much we do not know). No one was injured. The lady in the third car was apparently taken to the hospital, complaining of lower back pain and was immediately released.

After the collision, and seeing the damage that had occurred, I walked into the hair salon shop and told them I would not be able to keep my appointment. I returned right away to the van and swallowed some prescribed medication that I brought with me, because I knew my schedule of medication would call for me to take it while at the shop.

This was a medication that I have been taking for 30 years for anxiety. I took only half of the prescribed level and did so after the accident had occurred because of the anxiety over my mishap. My doctor confirmed later that this medication does not build up in the body and that six hours after taking a half a pill at 7 that morning there would be little, if any, effective level of the medication in my blood stream.

Yet, as I was taking my prescribed medication, Patrolman Mario Hunter who was quickly on the scene rushed over to me and demanded, “What’s that pill you’re popping?” He showed no concern for me; did not ask how I was; was I injured in any way; did I know how the accident occurred? His approach was accusatory and disrespectful. Wanting to be cooperative and helpful, I told him what I was taking and even pulled out a list of my daily medications so I could show him the name of the medication. He jumped to the conclusion just as he had jumped on me that I was “on something,” and in the middle of the street had me walk a straight line and tested my eye movement, concluding “her eyes are all messed up,” talking to Sergeant Unser who had also arrived on the scene. I’ve worn glasses most of my adult life and I am beginning to develop cataracts, so he likely had a hard time determining my eye movement, and especially so for an older woman who has just been involved in the first car accident in her life. So this supposedly well-trained patrolman once again jumps to a conclusion, the conclusion that he had already reached in his mind and for which he was looking for justification, “this woman is on drugs.”

Patrolman Hunter then arrested me for a DUI and reckless driving. He read me no “rights,” and I was not allowed to make or receive any phone calls then or later. At the time of my arrest I was 74 years old. I have been operating various automobiles for all of my adult life and have never had an accident.

With me standing in the middle of the street in front of the onlookers who had gathered, Patrolman Hunter frisked me thoroughly, placed me in handcuffs behind my back (my painfully arthritic hands) and roughly placed me in the cramped back seat of his police car and let me sit there for an hour in a closed car on a very warm day. Without conversing with me at all, he then transported me to the hospital where he escorted me, still in handcuffs, in the presence of people I recognized and who undoubtedly knew me, to be drug tested. Following that he transported me to police headquarters in hand cuffs now in front of me thanks to Sergeant Unser and placed me in a cell for another hour.

This demeaning ordeal was not yet over, as I had to appear before a magistrate on closed circuit television, a magistrate who did not speak to me as a person innocent until proven guilty but as one who had committed a crime and had to face the courts because of my crime. And before I could be released into my husband’s custody, I was fingerprinted and had mug shots made.

Unfortunately, my husband was out of town that day and learned of my predicament because a concerned citizen at the salon knew him and called on his cell phone. When he called the police station and was connected with Patrolman Hunter, he could not understand him and Sergeant Unser took over the call and gave him a little information about what was going on. When he called again later as he was nearing Franklin, Hunter told him to come to the station and ask for him. He did that and waited 30 minutes at a minimum in the reception area waiting for him to appear, so long that one of the ladies behind the glass partition came out and asked if she could help. He was never allowed to speak to me during all this time.

My treatment was totally unjustified for a woman who did nothing but have an accident that may or may not have been caused by me. I was treated like any common criminal, like a drug dealer on the street or a thief, by a Franklin patrolman on a police force that is charged with protecting the citizens of this community. Chief Phil Hardison was quoted in The Tidewater News on Wednesday, April 29, 2015, as saying, “he wants the police to always be kind and respectful,” and “When people come to us, or encounter us, they are often in crisis mode,” he said. “I can’t promise that everything is going to turn out OK all the time, but I want you to know that we are going to take good care of you.” Further, “I can’t afford to have a rough element walking around with the full authority of the government to do what they want and what they think they can get away with,” Hardison said. “I will not let that happen in Franklin.”

To Chief Hardison I would say, “What did your patrolman think as he frisked me: that I might have a gun and start shooting? As he handcuffed me and roughly placed me in his car, that I was going to bolt and run? Did he not think that whatever I was taking in my car after the accident could have no bearing on the accident itself? Did he think at all? Did he have any human feelings at all? Or is he so locked into rules and procedures that he can hide behind that he knows he can get by with bullying and manhandling a 74-year-old woman?”

Even Chief Hardison at the police station, as he tried to placate me, a very emotionally upset woman, tried to tell me not to be so upset because this was only a “traffic infraction.” No sir, it was not. I had been arrested, charged with a DUI, Reckless Driving, completely demeaned and humiliated in the town I have called home for 40 years and will continue to call home, treated as a common criminal, creating a record that will stand unless it is expunged.

Added to the outrageous conduct of the Police Department toward me for something I was not guilty of, your department took away my driver’s license for a week, thus depriving me of the right to vote on Election Day. Even though I called your department and the Clerk of Court’s office, I was not allowed to have my license returned a day early so I could vote. Once again procedure trumps any respect for the person.

The memory of that day remains with me because it was a traumatizing experience that I will never completely get over or forget. My experience sheds an ugly light on the Franklin Police Department and the judicial system in our community.

Six long, excruciatingly tense months later I finally went to court on charges of DUI and Reckless Driving brought by Patrolman Mario Hunter. Six months is the length of time it took my blood test results to get back from the Richmond lab to the Commonwealth Attorney before he would act in spite of having full knowledge of the circumstances of my case. In court my charge was changed to “Failure to properly operate my vehicle,” which was all the accident ever justified. As was appropriate I had to pay a fine plus court costs. But there in no recompense for my personal suffering nor for the attorney’s fees to defend me in court, ably done by Dan Crumpler.

My arrest by Patrolman Hunter robbed me of my sense of well-being and the confidence I’ve worked so hard for all these years. But the worst part of it was the utter public humiliation of it all.

After my treatment I now have very little respect for the Franklin Police nor any sense of being protected, especially since my only experience of being personally accosted in my 40 years in Franklin has come from a police patrolman. I have no expectation of receiving an apology from Chief Hardison for my unjustified arrest, but I do expect that I will have to pay additional attorney fees to seek to have my arrest record expunged from police records.

If my case is any example of the police always being “kind and respectful,” then the chief has a lot of work ahead of him.

LANE MEREDITH is a resident of Franklin.