SC police pointed gun at teen for driving without headlights, family says in lawsuit

Caitlin Byrd
·4 min read

Noah West raised both hands in the air after he sank to his knees in the parking lot, following the instructions shouted by a Summerville police officer.

For a moment, police dash-camera footage shows, West glanced backward at the white police officer behind him. What happened next has become the center of a new lawsuit filed against both the Summerville Police Department and the Town of Summerville.

At a moment when national tensions are high surrounding policing, the family is suing the police and the town for gross negligence and false arrest.

The police video from March 21 shows the officer approached West with his gun drawn, pointing it at West, a Black 19-year-old in a gray hoodie sweatshirt who was kneeling in the parking lot of a Checkers fast-food chain with his hands on the back of his head.

“He didn’t do anything, sir,” the teen’s mother pleaded with the officer as he walked toward her son with his gun drawn.

At the time of the incident, Summerville Police released a statement about what happened, along with copies of police reports.

After receiving several 911 calls about possible gunfire that night, police reports say officers rushed to a home on Weber Road. Despite talking with family members at the home, officers walked away without any suspects or leads.

When an officer saw a vehicle leaving the Weber Road area and driving without its headlights on, police spokesman Lt. Chris Hirsch said that’s when officers stopped the car West was driving.

Thinking the driver could be connected to a possible shooting, Hirsch said the officer conducted a felony traffic stop. But the officer issued a written warning for the headlights after learning that the driver wasn’t involved.

A request for comment Friday from the Summerville Police Department was not immediately returned.

Attorney Marvin Pendarvis, who is representing the family and is also a Democratic state representative in North Charleston, said he was disturbed when he first heard about what happened to West. When he saw the dashcam video, Pendarvis said became even more upset.

“It begs the question as to how far are we taking things when what should have been a routine traffic stop results in a teenager having a gun drawn on him,” Pendarvis said. “What if Noah would have made one sudden movement, or not initially complied to not get out of the car? What if that glance was interpreted as a threat? Anything can happen, especially when guns are drawn.”

In addition to gross negligence and false arrest, the family’s lawsuit also claims the arrest violated the South Carolina Constitution.

The state constitution guarantees the right to be free from being “deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”

Pendvaris said he wants to know more about what thresholds had to be met for a felony traffic stop.

“Did enough happen to even warrant the probable cause for police to stop him initially? What was the description of the car that was given? It opens the door.

“If we’re going to say a felony stop allows an officer to pull over someone that may look suspicious if shots are fired in a particular neighborhood, are you going to stop everyone with a traffic infraction: Every broken taillight? Every broken blinker?” Pendarvis said. “Assumption is a big part of this incident, and not only is it a slippery slope, it’s a dangerous one.”

The lawsuit filed this week comes amid a stream of similar cases involving young Black men and police.

In Chicago, body-camera footage released this week shows a police officer shooting and killing a 13-year-old boy.

After a Chicago officer chased Adam Toledo down a dark alley, the young man appeared to toss a gun before turning around and raising his hands. As he did, the officer opened fire, striking him once in the chest.

The West family’s lawsuit filed Monday in Dorchester County seeks an unspecified amount of damages, including the coverage of legal costs associated with the case.

Pendarvis said the lawsuit is about forcing a discussion about policing.

“If these kinds of stops continue and nothing changes in the department, what happens if the next young man or next young woman looks back at the officer and is seen as a threat? We have to address these issues now. We can’t wait until it results in a death to address it,” he said.

When Noah West was interviewed by a local TV station about what happened to him, he said, “I feared for my life.”