$1.3M Traffic Stop? Virginia state trooper sues blogger over online claims

Nathan Cox, left, is being sued for $1.35 million by Virginia State Trooper Melanie McKenney, right, after he posted video of a heated encounter with the officer on the Internet and accused her of molesting him.

Nathan Cox, left, is being sued for $1.35 million by Virginia State Trooper Melanie McKenney, right, after he posted video of a heated encounter with the officer on the Internet and accused her of molesting him.

A self-styled police watchdog who got a $75 ticket from a Virginia state trooper in 2012 is now facing a $1.3 million lawsuit -- after he posted the encounter on the Internet and accused the cop of molesting him.

On May 26, 2012, Memorial Day weekend, Nathan Cox of Mechanicsville, Va., was driving in the southbound lane of Interstate 295 just after 3 p.m. when Officer Melanie McKenney of the Virginia State Police pulled him over for failing to display his front license plate.

The events that transpired next -- including Cox's posting of the ordeal to his blog "Virginia Cop Block" -- would result in a $1.35 million lawsuit against him. 

The traffic stop was contentious from the beginning. McKenney immediately ordered Cox, who has a concealed weapons permit, from his vehicle, while Cox began recording the incident on his cellphone.

"It took him almost a mile before his vehicle pulled over and, of course, we're always looking for things that may be unusual because you never know what you're going to get during a traffic stop," McKenney told Monday.

"I'm approaching, looking in the windows, and he's got his back slightly towards me and he's holding an object," she said. "For my safety, I felt he needed to step out of the vehicle."

The object was Cox's cellphone, which he was using to legally record the incident. After stepping from the vehicle, McKenney ordered Cox, a 33-year-old Iraq War veteran, to put the device down on the car instead of holding it over her head out of fear it could be used as a weapon.

McKenney insists she wanted the phone placed on the back of Cox's car so that it could not be used as a blunt force object to strike her -- not to stop it from recording.

"There are reports of cellphones looking like guns," said McKenney, a 12-year veteran of the Virginia State Police. "I had no problem with him recording me. I was already being recorded with the dash cam."

"He wasn’t compliant when he got out of the vehicle," she said.

Cox, who was promptly frisked by McKenney, also had an expired inspection sticker. In the end, Cox received two tickets from McKenney: one for the inspection failure, which was later dismissed after he appeared in court, and another for $75 for his failure to display his front license plate.

The ordeal did not sit well with Cox, who said he believes his constitutional rights were violated.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, he later obtained the 28-minute dash cam video as well as radio transmissions and text messages sent between McKenney and her colleagues and posted it all to his blog. While sitting inside her police cruiser after the confrontation, McKenney can be heard in one radio transmission telling another officer, "I don't want myself on any Youtube or whatever," when the colleague informs her about Cox's blog. She can also be heard defending her orders to have Cox step outside his vehicle.

"It took him a long time to pull over so I just wanted him to get out of the car," she tells a colleague. "I don't want to search his car -- I don't want anything like that but I don't -- if he's got a gun ..."

The YouTube video of the confrontation has been viewed more than 600,000 times to date.

Cox and his blog are known to law enforcement in the area -- and the McKenney case is not the first time Cox has been embroiled in a legal dispute over his First Amendment rights. 

Cox was awarded $10,000 in April 2012 from the state of Virginia for an alleged illegal traffic stop. As Cox explains it, he was driving in Richmond a year earlier when he saw a Virginia Commonwealth University police officer engaged with another vehicle on the side of the road. Cox pulled out his megaphone -- which he said he uses at police demonstrations -- and blasted, "'Stop harassing people, we pay your paychecks.'" The officer then got into his vehicle with the sirens on and pulled Cox over -- an incident he also recorded on his cellphone and later posted to his blog.

Cox was charged with disorderly conduct, but a judge later dismissed the charge. He then hired well-known constitutional rights attorney Thomas H. Roberts, who filed a civil lawsuit against the police department. The case was settled outside of court and Cox was issued a check by the state.

McKenney first filed her lawsuit in May 2013 in small claims court for $5,000. She then re-filed in March 2014 in circuit court for $1.35 million -- an amount set by her attorney, D. Hayden Fisher.

Cox, a libertarian who said he once wanted to be a police officer, founded in 2010 what he calls a "police accountability group."

"Badges don't grant extra rights," he said, telling that his group's cause is to "hold police accountable, require transparency and educate people on their rights."

"We are a reactive and a proactive organization in the sense that if somebody gets roughed up by the police, we'll organize demonstrations and bail money if need be," he said. 

In the McKenney case, Cox said his arms were raised over his head because "within seconds of me getting out of the car, she tried to grab the cellphone out of my hand. I told her I had a personal right to record her."

Roberts, who is representing Cox again, said his client's actions are protected under the First Amendment and claims the lawsuit is problematic because a number of the claims are barred by the statute of limitations.

"The blog is protected by the First Amendment to protest and to complain about the government," said Roberts.

"Truth is an absolute defense against defamation," he added, referring to the video and text messages obtained by Cox. 

But McKenney's lawyer said it is alleged false statements made by Cox on his blog that constitute defamation -- such as a the accusation that McKenney "molested" him during the traffic stop.

"You can look at the dash cam video and see that she did not assault him or molest him," Fisher told "If anything, she could have arrested him for causing problems."

Cox defended his molestation statement -- which was said in a homemade video he posted to his blog. He told he felt he was molested, but "not sexually."

"She first tried to grab my phone and in doing so made unwanted contact with me. Then she did a quick pat-down. Then she tried grabbing my phone some more," he said.

McKenney said she was simply doing her job.

"We never know what we're encountering," she said. "It would be different if I was a rogue officer trampling on his rights; but this is not me."

"I am a professional person. I care about the community, I care about my reputation and I try to treat everyone with respect," she said.

Cristina Corbin is a New York-based reporter for Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.

Cristina Corbin is a Fox News reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @CristinaCorbin.