Turtle Creek officials look into police search of home

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Turtle Creek officials are investigating an incident in which a group of police officers barged into a woman's home, swore at her and searched her house while attempting to serve an arrest warrant on her landlord.

The officers also turned off a video camera the woman had trained on the front door after she heard the officers' walkie-talkies as they approached the house.

Robyn Ruckman, the tenant of the Maple Avenue house, posted the video on YouTube shortly after the officers left her home May 29.

"The cops are at the door and they want to see my ID ... so I'm going to leave the camera on," she said at the beginning of the 2-minute, 30-second video.

She walked downstairs, pointed the camera at the door and opened it.

A man's voice can be heard: "What's your name?"

"Robyn," she responded.

"Robyn what?" the man's voice said.

"Ruckman," she said.

The officers then asked for identification.

"Let me get it," Ms. Ruckman said as she tried to close the door.

"Leave the door open and get your ID right now!" an officer shouted.

Ms. Ruckman then said she didn't see a name tag on the officers' uniforms.

"I don't give a [expletive] what you see. Go get your ID. See that? It says police," the officer shouted.

As she walked upstairs, three officers entered the house. Ms. Ruckman asked them to wait.

"No, I can't wait here, because I think you're trying to avoid us," one of the officers said.

"We're here trying to serve an arrest warrant, OK? We have every right to be here," an officer said, noting that they were looking for Roben Edwards, the property owner and Ms. Ruckman's landlord.

"I'm not Roben Edwards!" Ms. Ruckman can be heard shouting on the video.

Nearly two minutes into the video, an officer turned the camera toward the wall. The officers' faces were never visible in the video.

Ms. Ruckman can be heard telling the officers there was no one else in the house. The officers repeated the request for ID.

As Ms. Ruckman and the man continued to yell, someone picked up the camera and turned it off, 2 minutes and 31 seconds from when she began filming.

Ms. Edwards -- who owns several rental units on Maple Avenue with her partner Ronald Cotyk Jr. -- was cited with "failure to maintain property" in September 2010 after a neighbor complained about uncut grass and a sizable Rose of Sharon plant, she said in an interview this week. Mr. Cotyk received the same citation, court records show.

Ms. Edwards said she and Mr. Cotyk maintain the yards the best they can, but she is being treated for ovarian cancer. Since she's fallen ill, she said she has paid workers to maintain the yards of her six rental units in Turtle Creek.

She said she and Mr. Cotyk buy boarded-up houses and renovate them as rentals.

Ms. Edwards never responded to the citation, so an arrest warrant was issued, a staff member for District Judge Scott Schricker said. A hearing is scheduled for July 10, and Ms. Edwards said she has had the grass cut and plans to plead not guilty.

University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris viewed the video and said the officers' conduct was inappropriate.

"It seems to me that they were dealing with a civilian in a very, very rude fashion," he said.

Mr. Harris noted that in Pennsylvania, individuals have a right to record the actions of police when officers are in public and on duty.

"That's got to apply even more strongly when it's in one's own home," he said. "She's got a right to videotape herself or anyone else who comes in there."

He also noted that failing to maintain a manicured lawn is a relatively minor infraction.

"To have this many police officers piling into somebody's house over a warrant and accusing people of lying about their identity in a very aggressive and rude fashion over a failure to maintain the yard seems almost over the top," he said.

Turtle Creek solicitor Nick Evashavik confirmed that Mayor Adam Forgie is investigating the incident but declined further comment.

Mr. Evashavik said having more than one police department present is common when serving arrest warrants but wouldn't comment further regarding the borough's policy for serving warrants. He said that of the officers who approached the house, two were from Turtle Creek, two were from East Pittsburgh and one was from the Allegheny County Housing Authority.

County Housing Authority police Chief Mike Vogel said his three officers were serving as backup while serving the warrant. He said his officers never entered the house nor are they audible in the video.

East Pittsburgh police Chief Lori Payne could not be reached for comment. A man who answered the phone at the Turtle Creek Police Department said Chief Dale Kraeer was on vacation and no one was available to comment.

Mr. Forgie noted that the officers serving the warrant only saw that Ms. Edwards failed to appear in court, not that the original citation was for failure to maintain the property. He said the officers behaved appropriately.

"I think my men did exactly what they were trained to do," he said. "They were looking out for their own safety and their partners' safety."

He noted that because the women have essentially the same first name, the officers "didn't know who they were dealing with until she could prove she was who she [said] she was."

Mr. Forgie said Ms. Ruckman hadn't contacted him, but he would be "glad to talk to her about the incident."

Ms. Ruckman said she's left messages at the borough building and she said she's struggled to find a lawyer to take her case.

She said she doesn't want any financial compensation -- she just wants the police to be reprimanded.

neigh_east

Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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