Altoona man says police beat him over obscenity

HOLLIDAYSBURG – An Altoona man who left his apartment early on March 3, 2012, to get a pack of cigarettes from his wife’s car ended up in a fracas with two city police officers, who eventually charged him with public drunkenness, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

Paul Leon Johnson, 48, who lived on the 800 block of 29th Street when the incident occurred, testified Tuesday before Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle that he was not guilty of any of the offenses, and his attorney Terry Despoy argued that the only reason police attacked Johnson was because he uttered an expletive and then began to walk back into his house after they approached him.

“This should never be a criminal action at this level of the court,” Despoy said.

He said Johnson was “minding his own business” within a few feet of his home and should never have been subjected to an arrest, during which he was “escorted to the ground” by officers and pepper sprayed,

Johnson testified he suffered bruises on his face, an elbow and a knee, and his eyes were red from the pepper spray. His glasses were also broken.

Blair County Assistant District Attorney Russell Montgomery called Johnson a “guy with a grudge toward police.”

He said there are two versions of what happened on that morning 15 months ago, but he argued that credibility in the case lies with the police.

Montgomery said Johnson twice issued an expletive in response to the officers’ questions and then fought them as they attempted to place him under arrest.

Testimony from Johnson, his wife, his son and two officers was presented during a trial by judge before Doyle.

While Doyle did not decide Johnson’s innocence or guilt Tuesday, she said by law she must make a decision in the case within seven business days.

Altoona patrolman Cornell Thompson said he and officer Matthew Plummer were on patrol after midnight on March 3 when they saw a man “slumped over” in a car, his feet resting outside the car.

Thompson said he was concerned that the man was having medical problems and inquired if he was OK.

The man, Johnson, allegedly used an expletive to tell the officer it was none of his business.

Thompson said he also wanted to find out what Johnson was doing because of the many car break-ins in the neighborhood.

Plummer, who was riding with Thompson, said Johnson then shut the door of his car and walked away, again using an expletive.

“I got an extreme dose of alcoholic beverages,” said Plummer, describing the smell when he approached Johnson.

Plummer said he decided at that point to arrest Johnson, and both officers then put him on the ground. He said a struggle occurred as they attempted to handcuff him.

Johnson testified he had consumed only one beer, and that was an hour before he came in contact with police.

He said he was polite with the officers but he admitted he uttered an expletive after noticing the car’s dome light was turned on after he had locked the door.

He said it was while he was attempting to open the door to turn off the light that the police pounced on him with both officers using their knees to pin him down and then shooting pepper spray into his face.

Despoy said Johnson did nothing wrong that night. Johnson had been watching a movie on TV with his family when he decided to get the cigarettes. The defense attorney reasoned that police were angry when they heard an expletive and took it out on Johnson.

Montgomery said the way Johnson acted and statements by Johnson’s wife, that he was upset with police in general because of contact with them in a domestic dispute from a prior marriage, showed that the credibility in the case rested with the police.

“The officers were not on the streets looking for problems. This individual caused the problem,” said Montgomery.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.