It’s a subject I read about in the news entirely too often: Law enforcement officials using excessive force.
Maybe I’m just particularly sensitive to the issue because of my vantage point as a Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Attorney, but this latest story stuck with me.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, two Pennsylvania constables have been charged with various crimes stemming from the arrest of a Munhall woman in October.
Two Pennsylvania deputy constables were charged with using excessive force while arresting a Munhall woman who called her cousin — a local chief of police — for help during the incident.
Here’s what happened: Two constables roll up to a woman’s house, knock on the door and tell her that she has a warrant out for her arrest for an unpaid parking ticket in the amount of $104. The woman tells them to hold on, she has restrained her dog. She then put the dog outside and called her cousin, who happens to be the police chief in a surrounding community.
Here’s when things got weird (according to a Post-Gazette story that summarized the criminal complaint): The woman goes to reopen the door, when one of the constables pushes open the door, knocks the phone out of her hand and proceeds to tell her she is going to jail for an unpaid parking ticket.
The woman then tells the constables she doesn’t believe she has any outstanding parking tickets, asking if she can see the paperwork. The constables allegedly refused to let her review any documents regarding the arrest warrant, and refused to take payment via check or cash (as they are permitted to do).
Then (again, according to the PG’s summary of the court documents), the constables handcuffed the woman and ended up dragging her by her feet – in front of her 10-year-old child and 5-year-old grandchild. She was taken to jail and later released on her own recognizance.
The resulting charges against the constables were serious. According to publicly available court documents, both constables, Christian Constantini, 25, and Michael Lowman, 45, were charged Dec. 15 with simple assault, reckless endangerment, official oppression, and conspiracy.
All of the offenses are misdemeanors.
It is possible that this case could set the precedent that constables are not above the law. Pennsylvania law is quite strict about all kinds of criminal offenses and believes in looking at all offenders equally. It does not discriminate among them based on their power, position, and authority. A crime is a crime irrespective of who committed it. So, even if the accused belongs to the police department, as a lawyer, one should treat him in the same manner as other offenders.
Here’s some free advice from a Pittsburgh Criminal Defense Attorney: If a constable comes to your door, please know you have the option to pay the debt owed by either cash or money order. And know that you absolutely have the right to review the constable’s supporting documents (such as the arrest warrant). Above all, when in doubt, immediately call the police or your attorney.
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Update March 8, 2017:
Both officers were convicted of simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, criminal conspiracy, and official oppression in a bench trial. They were sentenced to serve probation. The men appealed the conviction, an appeal that was denied.
The woman they arrested suffered a broken bone in her hand. The constables complained to a television news reporter that no one would listen to their side and that their lives were ruined.
They had been removed from their positions following their convictions. Constantini had run for re-election and won, and Lowman had been trying to get reinstated. The District Attorney had petitioned for their removal and expressed his relief at it being granted.
I’ve said over and over again on the pages of this website that criminal charges can ruin lives. Surely they must have known it would happen when they first refused the woman’s payment and then roughed her up.