The defense attorney representing a state trooper accused of shooting a man to death on the South Side following St. Patrick's Day festivities fired his first volley in federal court yesterday with a motion to dismiss.
Trooper Samuel Nassan is being sued by the family of Nicholas Haniotakis for unlawful use of deadly force and wrongful death for the March 15 incident.
Trooper Nassan and Pittsburgh police Sgt. Terrence Donnelly were working a roving DUI patrol on the South Side about 2 a.m. when they tried to pull Mr. Haniotakis over in his SUV as he drove in the wrong lane on 13th Street with a headlight out.
He nearly broadsided them, and they began a chase. Mr. Haniotakis, 33, crashed at 22nd and Wharton streets.
Officers ordered him out of the car, but instead he put the SUV in reverse and hit their unmarked police car and nearly hit Trooper Nassan, they said. Both officers fired at Mr. Haniotakis, but a bullet from Trooper Nassan's gun is the one that killed him.
Defense attorney Jerry McDevitt, who represents Trooper Nassan, wrote in his 32-page supporting brief that the officers were entitled to use deadly force to stop Mr. Haniotakis.
"As put by the United States Supreme Court, a police officer's attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death," Mr. McDevitt quoted from a 2007 case.
Further, he said that well-known plaintiff's attorney Geoffrey N. Fieger, who represents Mr. Haniotakis' mother, Diane Zion, failed to include in his complaint relevant details about the police chase and Mr. Haniotakis' level of intoxication that night.
The autopsy report showed that Mr. Haniotakis had a blood alcohol level of .14 -- more than the legal limit of .08 -- as well as Xanax, methadone, morphine and the primary metabolite of cocaine in his system.
Mr. McDevitt wrote that the investigation by the plaintiff's lawyers leading up to the filing of the lawsuit -- just 17 days after the incident -- was "shabby," that the complaint includes nothing but "bare bones" information and that the filing was done as part of a "calculated media strategy," to attack Trooper Nassan and the Pennsylvania State Police.
In November, the state settled another case involving a fatal shooting by Trooper Nassan for $12.5 million.
A federal court jury in March 2008 returned a $28 million award for the 2002 shooting death of Michael Ellerbe. The 12-year-old boy was shot in the back as Trooper Nassan and another officer chased him after he allegedly stole a car in Fayette County.
Mr. Fieger represented the family of the boy in that case, too.
Mr. McDevitt spent a significant amount of space in his brief attacking Mr. Fieger and his trial tactics.
Mr. McDevitt wrote that one accusation in the lawsuit involving Mr. Haniotakis -- that Trooper Nassan had not received an honorable discharge from the Marine Corps -- was an outright lie.
He noted that during the Ellerbe trial, Mr. Fieger held a copy of Trooper Nassan's military record in his hands, which clearly showed an honorable discharge.
"Such a false allegation is inexcusable here," Mr. McDevitt wrote. "There is no serious question as to whether the false allegation impugning Nassan's honorable discharge made in this complaint was deliberate and malicious."
For their part, Ms. Zion's attorneys said last night that they didn't want to argue the specific facts of the case, but that Mr. McDevitt's motion to dismiss was simply pro forma and "almost universally never granted."
Mr. Fieger did say he was surprised by Mr. McDevitt's "reprehensible and reckless allegations" about him personally.
During the criminal trial of Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, Mr. Fieger said he met repeatedly with Mr. McDevitt, who represented the former Allegheny County coroner, to give him advice -- including a line he specifically used in his closing argument.
"I can't believe he would be so reckless and make false allegations against me," Mr. Fieger said.
"It indicates a lack of character."
"I am surprised that he took the time away from his current defense of a person charged with murdering a police officer to claim credit for our success at Dr. Wecht's trial," Mr. McDevitt responded.
"I am not surprised that he would attack my character instead of addressing why he made a deliberate falsification about Sam's honorable service in the Marines. ...
"It's the way he does things."
Paula Reed Ward can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.