A man who was pulled out of his car by police and Tased after a June traffic stop plans to sue the Newport News Police Department in an excessive force claim.
Attorneys for 32-year-old Lawrence Fenner said they filed a "notice of claim" with the city on Monday and plan to bring a lawsuit by early 2023.
"I see these things happen on social media as well as on the news," Fenner said during a news conference Monday. "I would never have thought in my life that it will happen to me."
Speaking about the June 21 incident in detail for the first time, Fenner said he was on his way to his brother's home to help out with a brake job when police pulled him over on Roanoke Avenue and 30th Street.
Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew told media outlets at the time that Fenner drove by them at a high acceleration. That caused officers to run his license plate, which came back for a different kind of car.
In Monday's interview, Fenner said he provided police with his driver's license, reached for the registration in the glove box, then told them his wife would bring the document to the site of the stop.
But an officer on the car's passenger side said he thought Fenner was "reaching" for something in the car, and told him to get out.
In past encounters with police, Fenner said, he always got out of the car when told to do so. This time, he said, he had a valid driver's license and believed it was improper for officers to order him out.
"I was happy to give them the things that they needed and let them go about their way," Fenner said. "But unfortunately it didn't happen that way."
Under a 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Pennsylvania v. Mimms, police officers nationwide have the authority to order vehicle occupants out of their cars during traffic stops ― or order them to stay in the car - at the officer's discretion. The high court ruled that ensuring officer safety in such encounters overrides the temporary inconvenience of having to get out of a vehicle.
But Fenner would not get out of his car - acknowledging Monday that he held onto the steering wheel as officers attempted to pull him out. He said he gets nervous around police officers and thought there was no reason for it.
He said he doesn't regret what he did. "Right is right, and wrong is wrong," he said. "I didn't think I was in the wrong at all."
As the officers were forcing him out of the car, he said, "an officer punched me in the face multiple times." He tried to get up from the sidewalk, he said, and "that's when they all attack me."
Video footage that spread widely on social media shows an ensuing struggle between the officers and Fenner on the sidewalk, with the view partially blocked by the car. They eventually succeeded in getting him out from the passenger side and can be seen struggling with him on the ground. One officer could be seen kneeing him.
Drew supported the officers after the videos surfaced, saying they acted within the department's policy and procedures.
Fenner said he was Tased three times in the incident. His lawyers contended that getting struck with the Taser barbs or being punched caused a reaction in his muscles that led to his kidneys needing to be flushed in order to clear them from a deadly toxin buildup.
"This is an incident that could have very, very easily ended in Lawrence Fenner's death," one of his lawyers, Amina Matheny-Willard, asserted.
She said that though Fenner was initially cleared by Newport News Fire Department medics to be checked in to the City Jail, a jail official instead had him sent to the Riverside Regional Medical Center where the kidney issue was discovered.
Fenner was charged with several felony counts, but most of the charges were dropped by prosecutors earlier this month.
Police officers found a 9 mm handgun in Fenner's car - which he was precluded from having as a convicted felon. Court records show Newport News prosecutors dropped the felony firearm charge, three felony counts of assault and battery on a law enforcement officer and one count of possession of having improper license plates.
Records show Fenner pleaded no contest to three misdemeanors - one count each of assault and battery, carrying a concealed weapon and obstruction of justice by threat or force. Those guilty findings were deferred for two years and can be wiped away if Fenner stays out of trouble, Matheny-Willard said.
Newport News Senior Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Patterson has not returned phone calls about the case.
Matheny-Willard, acknowledged that the 1977 Supreme Court decision gives police officers the authority to order people out of cars during stops. But she contended that police do that far more in Black communities than in white ones.
"The police discretion - it seems like the color of your skin determines how they use or abuse their discretion," she said.
The attorney who will be handling the civil lawsuit, Carteia Basnight, said she's still investigating exactly what happened in the case.
"We do understand is that the police do have a job to do, and they need to have the proper legal way to make sure that they're able to serve and protect the community," she said, adding that she's the daughter of a former law enforcement agent.
"The important part is how do you do your job properly - not doing it excessively or crossing lines," Basnight said, saying she hasn't decided whether to file in state or federal court.
Fenner, who said he's getting mental health treatment over the incident, got choked up several times during Monday's news conference.
"This situation is kind of still fresh, and still kind of me touches every day," he said. "I'm at a loss of words at this moment due to what I'm going through."
The goal of the lawsuit, he said, "is holding everyone accountable for their actions."
Peter Dujardin, 757-247-4749, firstname.lastname@example.org