PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – A Pennsylvania man was wrongly arrested, given a rough ride in a police car and jailed for hours after posting a Facebook video he recorded when a police officer responded to a parking dispute at his home, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued Armstrong County District Attorney Scott Andreassi and a Ford City police officer on behalf of Michael Gratteri.
The lawsuit alleges Andreassi wrongly approved the criminal charges, which Andreassi later withdrew but not before Officer Joshua Wilford arrested Gratteri for violating the state’s wiretap laws more than a month after the September 2014 confrontation was recorded and posted on Facebook.
“The wiretap law does not apply to public interactions with police,” said Christy Foreman, an attorney who has volunteered to represent Gratteri. The state law makes it a crime to record someone’s voice without their permission.
“The officer’s actions charging Gratteri were intended to punish him for posting the recording on Facebook,” Foreman said.
Wilford, contacted at the police station Tuesday, referred the call to his chief, who didn’t comment. Andreassi didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.
Gratteri lives near Ford City High School and has had frequent run-ins with teachers who park in front of his home instead of a school parking lot. When Wilford used his motorcycle to block in a teacher’s car that was parked in front of Gratteri’s home, the teacher called police and Wilford responded, the lawsuit said.
“His wife had had some surgery, it was difficult for her to get around. She also works nights, so she would get home but after school had started, and wouldn’t be able to find a space in front of their house,” said Sara Rose an ACLU lawyer. “So, he wrote a note and left it on a number of cars that were parked outside his house, ‘Please don’t park here. My wife is disabled.’”
Gratteri used his cellphone, which was clipped to his shirt, to record the encounter. His motorcycle windshield also sported a sign saying, “Smile! You’re on camera.” The officer warned Gratteri to move his motorcycle so the teacher could move her vehicle, after the officer threatened to have Gratteri’s cycle towed, the lawsuit said.
Gratteri posted the cellphone video on Facebook, and Wilford learned of it when an officer in another community texted a link to the recording.
“It turns out, the officer learned from someone else that the video had been posted on Facebook,” said Rose. “So, while the officer didn’t accuse him of committing any crime at the time, he came back a month later with a state trooper and arrested Mr. Gratteri for violating the state wiretap law.”
Wilford then contacted Andreassi about charging Gratteri with violating the wiretap act and the DA signed off on the complaint, enabling Wilford to arrest Gratteri on Oct. 13, 2014, more than a month later, the lawsuit said.
Gratteri was handcuffed in front of his 9-year-old son “who ran down the street with tears streaming down his face as the police car drove away with his father inside,” the lawsuit said.
“It was certainly scary when you’re just out enjoying your day and next thing you know you’ve got guys with guns and handcuffs coming in your backyard,” Gratteri told KDKA.
The officer didn’t buckle Gratteri into the seat, who was “knocked around the back of the police cruiser” during the ride to jail, where Gratteri spent more than seven hours before posting bond, the lawsuit said.
Andreassi withdrew the charges at the end of October 2014.
“The courts have said that a police officer who is performing his duties, who is in a public place has no reasonable expectation of privacy,” Rose said. “Yet, that’s what Officer Wilford arrested Mr. Gratteri for.”
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and a court order ruling that Gratteri’s civil rights were violated.
“I was in shock,” Gratteri said in a statement released by the ACLU. “Even though I knew I had done nothing illegal, I was scared that I would not be able to get out of jail.”
No court date has been set. The ACLU says they would like Gratteri to at least get back the money he spent in legal fees. They would also like to make everyone aware of what constitutes violating the wiretap act.
“It’s good that people are going to get educated, and they understand that what I did is not illegal and that we can record the police officers in the line of duty,” Gratteri said.
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