Pulaski sheriff's deputy used excessive force several times, witnesses say

SOMERSET — A Pulaski County sheriff's deputy has used excessive force several times in arresting people, an attorney and several witnesses said at a preliminary hearing Friday.

The witnesses included two Somerset police officers who said they saw Deputy Steve Molen hit people without justification.

In another instance, a Pulaski County man testified that Molen slammed him into the side of his car during a traffic stop and broke his nose and shoulder, then told jail employees not to take his photograph until he'd been cleaned up.

"It was pretty brutal," Nancy resident John Dungan testified.

Molen is not charged with a crime. Rather, in an unusual twist, a man arrested by Molen presented the testimony in order to fight charges.

Danny Whitaker, 61, is charged with fleeing, menacing and resisting arrest after Molen pulled him over for speeding in October 2009. Whitaker and his attorney, Scott Foster, want to tell jurors that Molen has a habit of using excessive force against people and then filing unfounded charges against them as a cover-up.

Lee Tobbe, the special prosecutor in Whitaker's case, argued that other alleged assaults by Molen are not relevant in the case.

District Judge Kathryn Gregory Wood heard the testimony in order to decide whether to admit it in Whitaker's trial in March. She will rule later.

Molen and Tobbe declined comment on the allegations. In court, however, Tobbe said the civilian witnesses were angry over being charged, and questioned their credibility.

Sheriff Todd Wood said that to his knowledge, no one — including those who testified — had filed a formal complaint with him against Molen.

Wood said Molen is an active officer; he leads the department in calls answered and drunken-driving arrests, for example.

"He's been a tremendous servant for the citizens of this county," Wood said.

One man who testified Friday said he told Wood that Molen had hit him.

Molen said Whitaker, whose two sons are police officers, initially didn't pull over, then acted aggressively after he did.

Molen said in the citation that he hit Whitaker one time after Whitaker reached for his back pocket, causing concern he had a weapon, and struggled with the deputy.

Whitaker, however, claims Molen punched him several times, kicked him repeatedly, and violently twisted his arm even though he was not resisting arrest.

Whitaker has sued Molen, Wood, Judge-Executive Barty Bullock and the county in federal court.

On Friday, witnesses described nine incidents in recent years in which Molen allegedly hit or treated them roughly — sometimes while they were handcuffed — or in which they saw him hit someone.

Brian Poteet, now serving time on a felony drunken-driving charge, said Molen dragged him into the weeds beside the road after a traffic stop and kicked and punched him repeatedly while other officers were present.

He and several other witnesses acknowledged they'd been drinking before the alleged assaults but said they did not resist arrest.

"Wasn't much resisting I could do cuffed," Poteet said.

Somerset police Officer Joe Criswell said he took part in a chase in September 2006 in which the camera in his cruiser recorded Molen hitting a man with what appeared to be a baton after the chase had ended. The man was handcuffed, and it was not proper to hit him, Criswell said.

Billy Bolin, a Somerset police detective, said he saw Molen kick a man after a pursuit in August 2008.

The man was on the ground, handcuffed, when Molen kicked him hard in the groin, according to testimony.

Bolin said Molen had no reason to kick the man; he thought the blow constituted fourth-degree assault.

Bolin said he did not arrest Molen, but he said a supervisor in the sheriff's office was notified of the incident.

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