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BASISTA v. WEIR

January 10, 1964

Frank BASISTA, Plaintiff,
v.
Walter WEIR, Chief of Police, City of Duquesne, Charles Scalese, Captain of Police, and Vernon Smith, Police Officer, all of the City of Duquesne, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: ROSENBERG

A jury returned a verdict for $ 1500 in favor of the plaintiff Basista as punitive damages in a Civil Rights action against the defendant Scalese, an arresting officer in a former criminal prosecution in a State court. The defendant Scalese is here on motions for a new trial and for judgment in accordance with a previous motion for a directed verdict. The Western Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, the County of Allegheny Lodge No. 91, Fraternal Order of Police, and the City of Duquesne have each filed petitions, amicus curiae, and seek a reversal of the jury's verdict.

This action was originally brought by the plaintiff Basista against Walter Weir, Chief of Police of the City of Duquesne, Charles Scalese, Captain of Police and Vernon Smith, a police officer, all of the City of Duquesne.

 On July 17, 1959 at about 5:30 o'clock P.M., defendants Scalese and Smith visited the plaintiff at his residence in Duquesne to talk to him about a complaint to Scalese from his sister-in-law about the plaintiff. The plaintiff invited the two defendants into his home. A discussion ensued but eventually it became heated. The plaintiff offered two or more times to take Scalese out to the quarry for a fight. In any event fists started flying and the police officers placed the plaintiff under arrest. The plaintiff resisted arrest, but the officers succeeded in getting him to the police car and eventually to the police station where he was confined. On the next morning the plaintiff was given a hearing before a magistrate of the City of Duquesne and he was held for court on two charges: (1) resisting arrest and (2) assault and battery upon Scalese. The Quarter Sessions Court of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, after a non-jury trial, dismissed the action of resisting arrest because of the failure of the police to have a warrant and found Basista guilty of assault and battery. He was placed on probation. Basista failed to take an appeal from the judgment of the Court of Quarter Sessions and that judgment became final.

 This action in the United States Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania followed on April 14, 1961. It was based upon the deprivation of the plaintiff's constitutional and civil rights in contravention of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. *fn1"

 At the trial of the case before the jury, after it appeared that no evidence was presented against the defendant Weir, the Chief of Police, a motion for directed verdict was granted, but the case against Smith and Scalese was sent to the jury. The jury found in favor of the defendant Smith, and against the defendant Scalese and in favor of the plaintiff in the sum of $ 1500 as punitive damages, but allowed nothing for compensatory damages.

 We shall treat the amicus curiae petitions first. It is gratifying to know on behalf of the public that there is such a thing as the spirit of esprit de corps among the various police officers who now come to the aid of Scalese. Although, if there had been any reason to ascertain the truth or to procure evidence which would have evoked the truth in the case, it would have been much more preferable to have had all of these police officers come forward at that time in aid of their fellow police officer. We may well assume that these men, as police officers, would have been able to ferret out the true facts in the case so that they might have been properly brought before a court of law. However, they have come into the case only after the jury has presented its verdict and we may well assume that the amici are not knowledgeable with the facts or the evidence of the case and came in only because the jury verdict was adverse to one of their fellow officers.

 For the most part they are concerned about the effect which the verdict, if allowed to stand, will have upon police officers and the public generally. A verdict under the circumstances of this case, if allowed to stand, they maintain, may subject police officers to personal civil liability for damages by persons so inclined without any basis or provocation. Under these circumstances then, police officers and other law enforcement officers must of necessity 'be deterred in effective apprehension of criminals and other law violators, in the proper and effective administration of their duties to preserve public peace and order.*

 Unfortunately, this point of view is only one-sided. There is another point of view with which they must be faced, and that is that a police officer, by virtue of his very essential power to enforce the law, may become one for the doing of wrong acts as well as good acts such as are expected of him. From the early days of our country, the need for constitutional protective devices against those, themselves, in charge of law enforcement remained impressively implanted in the minds of our early lawmakers, and we are still, today, constantly reminded that there are law enforcement officers who are unconcerned with the constitutional rights of the everyday individuals who make up our public, and at times the unconcern extends even to the point of brutality.

 The Federal Courts particularly are being called upon constantly to undo the intentional or lackadaisical acts of law enforcement officers who have flaunted the Federal Constitution as well as state laws and constitutions. We hope that law enforcement officers will come more quickly and better to understand the meaning of constitutional law enforcement and exert greater justice than can be accomplished by high-handed methods of individual peace officers who interpret their own powers narrowly and so, innocently or ignorantly, perpetrate injustice upon others. I do not say that the defendant Scalese in this case has done anything wrong or that he has taken advantage of the plaintiff. That was not my function as the trial judge. That was, however, the function of the jury, and the jury has answered the question and made a finding of fact that Scalese did deprive the plaintiff of his Federal Constitutional rights.

 The members of the various police organizations are police officers in their respective communities and it is their duties and functions to preserve the peace and integrity of the men in their communities who perform police work. This they can do only in accord with the principles of law which they must be guided.

 It cannot be for them, any more than it can be for me, simply an inclination of the heart to exonerate a police officer. When he is a party in a court of law, he must stand on his own feet as equally as must every other individual of whatever calling or standing in the community. A jury of 12 men and women examined the evidence and found against Scalese.

 With due consideration for the amici who, I am sure, have come forward here with the best intentions, I must, nevertheless, fairly and impartially examine all the evidence in the case in the light of the applicable law, and arrive at a just determination on the questions now before me.

 The defendant bases his motion for a new trial and judgment on a number of grounds. It is only on a rare occasion when a trial court will disturb the findings of a jury, and something of importance must appear which would induce a trial court to reverse or set aside the jury's findings. Rice v. Union Pacific R. Co., 82 F.Supp. 1002, 1006 (D.C.Neb., 1949). Under the circumstances of this case then, what is there upon which the defendant may base any relief for setting aside the jury's verdict? The plaintiff has set forth in his pleadings and has attempted to show before the jury that violations of the following constitutional provisions have occurred:

 (a) The Fourth Amendment guaranteeing against unlawful searches and seizures and against unreasonable arrests;

 (b) The Eighth Amendment guaranteeing release upon bail and no subjection to cruel ...


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