CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A West Virginia politician claimed Thursday that an obscure state law shields him from criminal charges after his violent outburst over a racist display at the Capitol.
Del. Mike Caputo's pretrial court hearing took an unexpected turn when his attorney asked that the misdemeanor battery charge against the Democrat be dismissed due to a state law granting him “legislative immunity."
The move, detailed in a last-minute filing Thursday morning, forced the magistrate to postpone the hearing so he and prosecutors could sort out the assertion. Even Caputo's lawyer hinted at the murkiness of the law.
“It's new to me and it looks like it's pretty much new to the state of West Virginia because we've had the statute a long time but we've never had to deal with this precisely," attorney J. Timothy DiPiero told the magistrate.
The law says “a member of the Legislature has immunity extending both to civil suits and criminal prosecutions for all actions within the legislative sphere” even if the action “would in itself be unconstitutional or otherwise contrary to criminal or civil statutes.” It's unclear how far the law goes to protect legislators who commit violent acts.
A follow up court hearing has not yet been scheduled for Caputo, who announced this week that he's running for state Senate in 2020. He and his attorney declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
Images of the anti-Muslim display spread quickly on social media. Setup outside the House of Delegates chamber on “WV GOP Day” in March, it contained a host of Islamophobic flyers and an image of the burning World Trade Center juxtaposed with a picture of U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim congresswomen ever elected.
"'Never forget' — You said," was written over the Twin Towers. On Omar's picture, a caption read, “I am the proof you have forgotten.”
Caputo, furious over the display, kicked one of the House chamber doors into a statehouse staffer and then pushed another lawmaker with his elbow, police said. His actions drew criticism at the time and he was later stripped of his committee assignments for the outburst.
The group whose name appeared on a sign next to the display, ACT for America, has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The organization issued a statement disavowing the images after they were circulated on social media. The state Republican party also condemned the display.
"No wonder why I am on the 'Hitlist' of a domestic terrorist and 'Assassinate Ilhan Omar' is written on my local gas stations," Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, wrote on Twitter at the time. "Look no further, the GOP's anti-Muslim display likening me to a terrorist rocks in state capitols and no one is condemning them!"
About six months later, police in Charleston filed a criminal complaint against Caputo, charging him with misdemeanor battery. The state Democratic party quickly labeled the case "a politically motivated scheme."
Caputo, who has served in the House for 23 years, maintains he did nothing illegal.
“I was very surprised and disappointed to learn today that I have been charged criminally regarding my actions back on March 1, 2019 at the West Virginia House of Delegates,” he said after the charges were filed. “I have already apologized for losing my temper that day, but I certainly didn’t intend to physically hurt anyone, and don’t believe I committed a crime.”