DA's office agrees to unusual settlement
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The Allegheny County district attorney's office has agreed to settle a federal lawsuit against it by redistributing a memo explaining that it is not against the law to videotape a police officer in the course of doing his duty.
The unusual settlement -- which includes no financial terms -- came about after a Hill District man was charged with violating state wiretap laws in April 2009.
Elijah Matheny was with a friend rummaging through a Dumpster at the University of Pittsburgh's Bouquet Gardens dormitory on April 29. They were going through the trash, looking for items college students had thrown away at the end of the semester.
The pair removed candy, energy bars and silverware before university police were called to the scene.
At first, Officer Nicholas Mollo handcuffed Mr. Matheny's friend because he could not confirm her identity. As that was happening, Mr. Matheny recorded the incident on his cell phone.
The officer then arrested Mr. Matheny, saying that he never provided permission for the 2-minute, 55-second video to be recorded.
The wiretap charge was withdrawn at the preliminary hearing, said Sara Rose, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented Mr. Matheny.
The lawsuit, filed just a few months before the G-20 summit came to Pittsburgh, included claims of First Amendment retaliation, false arrest and malicious prosecution.
Defendants included Officer Mollo, as well as Allegheny County, because, according to an affidavit filed by the officer, Assistant District Attorney Chris Avetta gave him the go-ahead to pursue the charges against Mr. Matheny. An investigation by the ACLU concluded Mr. Avetta did not approve the charge.
"It sounds like the DA's office was not responsible for the violation," Ms. Rose said. "But we wanted them to make it clear to other prosecutors and police officers, it's not a violation of the wiretap law if you videotape an officer engaging in his duties."
In March, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cathy Bissoon granted the officer's motion to dismiss him as a defendant based on qualified immunity, performing his job as a police officer. The ACLU plans to appeal that decision with the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Ms. Rose said.
Though it has not yet gone out, the memo will be sent to the Allegheny County police chiefs association, as well as to its local prosecutors.
First Published July 15, 2010 12:00 am