Pittsburgh wins civil case over 2010 road rage incident

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Bradley Walker was a Pittsburgh police detective May 1, 2010, when he choked a Squirrel Hill man in a road rage incident, but he wasn't on duty and it wasn't the city's responsibility, a jury determined Monday.

The unanimous civil verdict by the eight-member jury in U.S. District Court meant that the city need not pay Jarret Fate, 32, anything for his troubles. It was a boost for the city administration just days after the Friday indictment of former police Chief Nate Harper on corruption charges. Mr. Harper was a defendant in the civil case until Wednesday, when U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab let him out of the case, along with Assistant Chief George Trosky.

"We never thought [Mr. Walker] was acting as a policeman," Chief Trosky said. "He wasn't. It was the right verdict."

During the trial held last week, there was no dispute that Mr. Walker choked Mr. Fate and threatened him with his service gun after the two were involved in a fender-bender exiting the Parkway toward Oakland. Mr. Walker was fired because of the incident and convicted of three misdemeanors.

Assistant city solicitor Mike Kennedy argued that because Mr. Walker was driving his son to work and never sought to arrest or cite Mr. Fate, he was not acting "under color of state law," meaning as a law enforcement professional. The jury agreed, and as a result it never got to the other questions posed by Mr. Fate: whether the city failed to supervise Mr. Walker, whether that led to the incident, and what the damages were.

Mr. Fate's case focused largely on the 32 confirmed citizen complaints against Mr. Walker during his 17 years with the city. The city should have fired Mr. Walker long before 2010, perhaps in 2007 when he punched another detective and had a domestic incident in which he allegedly hit his wife and choked his son, argued Mr. Fate's attorney, Josh Autry.

"I'm happy that we shed more light on the situation and combed through the facts," said Mr. Fate, after the verdict was read.

"We've been able to uncover substantial evidence regarding how the city has poorly investigated complaint after complaint," Mr. Autry said.

"I think to the contrary," city solicitor Dan Regan said. "The jury heard all of the evidence. They carefully considered all of the evidence, and they determined that the city was not at fault for anything that occurred on that day.

"This shows that the city does do a thorough job investigating" complaints, he said.

Mr. Autry said he would appeal Judge Schwab's ruling compelling him to prove that Mr. Walker was using law enforcement authority at the time of the incident.

The city had also argued that the judge should have made that determination, asking him in pretrial motions to rule that the detective was not acting as a policeman. That would have ended the case without a trial.

Some judges "might have made a legal decision that this kind of conduct did or did not constitute operating under color of law," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor. "If left open to the jury, then you have to go all the way through a trial to get to only that first question, as appears to have happened here."

Mr. Kennedy on Sunday asked Judge Schwab to quiz the jurors on whether their judgment might be affected by Mr. Harper's indictment on one count of conspiracy and four counts of willful failure to file federal tax returns. Judge Schwab did that, and none of the jurors was disqualified.

Mr. Fate's case raised the question of whether the bureau has been lax on discipline just as it faced unprecedented scrutiny of its financial controls. That scrutiny culminated in the indictment alleging that Mr. Harper and others diverted more than $70,000 in checks from private businesses into an unauthorized account, from which he paid some $30,000 in private expenses.

"These stories of an officer seemingly out of control, which have been reported in the past, all were rehashed at the worst possible time," Mr. Harris said.

mobilehome - neigh_city

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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