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Uncivil Liberties

Seeking justice with a video camera, a Hopewell pastor finds himself in a constitutional battle.

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The scene looks like a low-budget episode of “Cops.”

Blurry, makeshift video footage shot at a skewed angle shows shadowy nighttime figures floating around two parked cars, one a police vehicle with siren lights dancing, another sporting a PT Cruiser profile, both tense players in an unfolding urban street drama: A traffic stop.

“One, two, three, four — there's four police cars here,” a man narrates in a gravelly voice. “This is taking advantage of poor people.” 

The conversation gets prickly when the narrator approaches the traffic stop and an officer requests that he move to a nearby parking lot. The man dallies, asks where to go, questions whether he's legally required to move. Finally, an officer asks the man if he knows what “impeding with an investigation is.”

“I know what obstruction of justice is,” the man retorts. “Am I hindering you from doing your job?”

Within minutes the man is under arrest for obstruction of justice.

“Make sure the recorder's going,” he says. “They've gone too far this time.”

There's a final swerving of footage as the camera, filming from a vehicle, zooms around an intersection to catch a white-haired man in a tank top and handcuffs.

It screams shoestring, but the video footage is the star witness in Charles Bennett's lawsuit against Colonial Heights police officers Daniel B. Vilardo, John Peterson and Theodore Guilmart. Bennett, 60, a Pentecostal pastor who leads Joy Fellowship Worship Center in Hopewell, was indicted by a grand jury for obstructing justice following an October 2008 confrontation with Colonial Heights police officers during a traffic stop. Bennett was acquitted of the those charges in 2009, but earlier this year fired back with a civil lawsuit alleging the officers violated his constitutional rights, among other things.

The legal drama is part of what Bennett characterizes as a broader social-justice mission to expose racism, loss of civil liberties and unfair targeting by local law enforcement that Bennett traces back to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“After 9/11 I became increasingly aware of the fact that there was a mentality that started to pervade the police officers,” Bennett says. “The citizens were suspect and it was us against them.”

He's played host to local radio and television shows to air his grievances and call out offenders. “There are things happening all around us because we have lost our freedoms in this nation,” he says.

In his lawsuit, Bennett says he began videotaping traffic stops because he was concerned Colonial Heights Police officers were targeting students at Virginia State University, the historically black college just outside of Petersburg, that funnels traffic through nearby Colonial Heights. Bennett's lawsuit says he arranged to videotape traffic stops on Colonial Heights Boulevard to document police activity, and on the night of the October 2008 confrontation, Bennett contends he used a microphone and remote recorder “while directing a video recording” to shoot a traffic stop and “better observe” police.

The resulting footage — the source of the “Cops” style scene — syncs the separately recorded audio and video, Bennett says, and his lawsuit appears to quote liberally from the clip as part of his allegations.In addition to claiming violations of Bennett's free exercise of religion, freedom of speech and due process under the law, Bennett claims in his lawsuit that Colonial Heights police engaged in battery, false arrest, false imprisonment, conspiracy to injury and malicious prosecution.

He also contends that during his post-indictment arrest — for an obstruction of justice misdemeanor, no less — while dining at a Golden Corral restaurant, officer Guilmart made a lewd gesture using Bennett's restrained thumb and Guilmart's own hand. Bennett also claims the officer intentionally did not fasten Bennett's seat belt in the car before slamming on the brakes, and compromised Bennett's community reputation — a claim reflected in Bennett's additional allegation that an officer distributed a safety bulletin identifying Bennett and some of his colleagues as nuisances.

In their court filings, defendants Vilardo, Peterson and Guilmart deny allegations that they violated Bennett's constitutional rights, and any wrongdoing. Peterson and Guilmart declined comment when contacted by Style Weekly. The defendants' lawyers, David P. Corrigan and Jeremy D. Capps, did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The case is ongoing, but on Aug. 29 Colonial Heights Circuit Court Judge Herbert C. Gill Jr. threw out Bennett's allegations that his constitutional rights were violated and Bennett's allegation of conspiracy to injure. Gill also overruled the officers' requests to throw out Bennett's allegations of false arrest, false imprisonment, battery and malicious prosecution.

The trial is set for Jan. 19.

Bennett is no stranger to legal controversy. In 2005 he was convicted in Hopewell Circuit Court for disorderly conduct resulting from an argument with court clerks. He appealed but the conviction was sustained. In the current case, Bennett claims the video of the October 2008 encounter was shot by an African-American man named Emmanuel Artis and that Artis was held at gunpoint by Prince George County police following the filmed incident.

Artis says he uses a collection of different cameras to shoot police activity and has had his own recent run-ins with officers. His traffic charges, some of which have been dropped, have spanned Hopewell, Petersburg and Colonial Heights and include speeding, stopping his car in the road and “TV monitor in view of driver,” court records show.

“His crime is called D.W.B.,” Bennett says. “Driving while black.”

Under a shock of white hair and clad in a bright red blazer, a tie with a bold red, blue and tan pattern and a gold-colored watch and rings, Bennett sits on a recent Wednesday for an interview in the offices of his Richmond lawyer, Thomas H. Roberts. Artis, in a stylish zip-up jacket and aviator sunglasses, films the interview using a digital camera and a tripod, frequently adjusting the setup as Bennett talks.

“We have to push back,” Bennett says. “I take my tape recorder everywhere, so people can't mix my words.”

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