Seat belt ticket in Prairie Grove gets personal

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PRAIRIE GROVE – When Prairie Grove police Officer James Page wrote a seat-belt ticket on Oct. 21, he didn’t know he was about to end up the subject of an Iowa attorney’s online war against him.

Eric D. Puryear, 28, who has a Davenport, Iowa, law office but is licensed to practice in Illinois, has offered to handle cases involving Page for free and began posting online about Page and the $55 citation.

Page said he feels harassed.

Puryear also filed a civil lawsuit against the village, alleging that officials failed to properly respond to his Freedom of Information Act requests. He is seeking between $5,000 and $10,000.

In October, Puryear, his wife and daughter traveled to McHenry for a birthday party and to spend time with his wife’s family, he said.

Puryear was in the passenger seat of his brother-in-law’s pickup truck as they drove down Route 176 and Page pulled them over. He gave Puryear a ticket for not wearing a seat belt.

Puryear, who handed over his ID as well as an Illinois State Bar Association card, said he was wearing it.

Page disagrees.

“I stopped him for not wearing a seat belt, offered him a warning, and he said he was going to make a complaint against me,” Page said.

On the ticket he wrote, Page gave his name and badge number at Puryear’s request.

Puryear filed multiple FOIA requests to the village in an effort to receive video of the stop, then he took to the Internet. Besides his firm’s website, Puryear has posted about Page on another website he has, learnaboutguns.com, and placed ads on Facebook and Craigslist.

According to a complaint filed with the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, Page found out about the Facebook ad after his daughter, who is in college, saw it. Page’s 16-year-old son also said that some of his friends had asked him whether his father was “some kind of criminal” because of the ad.

“I believe that Mr. Puryear is intentionally trying to intimidate me,” Page said. “Knowing that he is a gun activist, I am fearful for the safety of myself and my family.”

After a hearing Jan. 16, McHenry County Judge Charles P. Weech found that Page had probable cause to pull over Puryear. The case has been set for trial May 20.

Puryear said he could have paid the ticket and moved on, or not asked for Page’s badge number in the first place, but that would have been “morally wrong.”

“I will spend the time and funds that are necessary to resolve this matter for myself, and to help protect the community against this sort of wrongful action,” Puryear said. “Hopefully, my action will put a stop to this sort of misconduct, and will save people grief and cost they would otherwise experience if no one took action.”

In the two weeks since he has offered pro bono representation for matters involving Page, his office has entered an appearance in one case and is evaluating several others, Puryear said.

In the civil lawsuit against the village regarding his FOIA requests, Puryear, who is black, called the basis for the stop “potentially racially motivated,” an accusation Page denied.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Combs, who is chief of the criminal division, said the sheriff’s office consulted him regarding Page’s complaint and he determined that no charges were going to be filed against Puryear.

“There is a statute of harassment of a witness that’s a Class 2 felony, but I don’t believe what was posted meets that charge,” Combs said.

The First Amendment protects Puryear and his online opinions, Combs said.

“I’m not saying what he said is correct,” Combs said. “I’m saying what he said was not criminal.”

David McArdle, Prairie Grove’s attorney, said the village has received more than 15 FOIA requests from Puryear or his attorney.

“They just keep coming,” McArdle said.

Initially, the village responded that officials were unable to turn over a video of the traffic stop because of a computer problem. However, once that issue was corrected, the video was sent, as were emails and receipts showing that work had been done.

“Whenever we could, we responded,” McArdle said. “Whenever we were able to retrieve the video, we did it.”

Puryear said he sent as many FOIA requests as necessary to get the truth and that he will continue to do so.

The civil case against the village has a scheduling conference set for April 17.

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