Scuffle ends in split verdict

A Blair County judge has found an Altoona man guilty of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct but innocent of public drunkenness as the result of a confrontation with city police 15 months ago.

Paul Leon Johnson, 48, during a trial by judge on June 4, testified he was watching a movie with his family during the early morning of March 3, 2012, when he decided to go to his wife’s car to get cigarettes.

He was sitting in the car when two police officers patrolling the 800 block of 29th Street saw Johnson in a “slumped over” position.

Patrolman Cornell Thompson said he asked Johnson if he was OK, fearing for Johnson’s health.

He said also the neighborhood had been having problems with car break-ins, which was another reason to question Johnson.

Johnson, according to Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle, “uttered expletives” in response.

As Johnson walked away from Thompson and Patrolman Matthew Plummer, he was asked to stop. Again, an expletive was the reply.

Plummer said Johnson smelled an “extreme dose” of alcohol on Johnson. He told Johnson he was going to be arrested for public drunkenness.

The officers said Johnson refused to put his arms behind his back and that pepper spray had to be used.

Johnson admitted using an expletive but said it was not aimed at the officers. He said he closed the car’s door and was ready to go back to his apartment with the cigarettes when he noticed the car’s dome light was still on. That situation caused him to utter an expletive, he testified. 1/2

Doyle concluded that police had probable cause to arrest Johnson for public drunkenness because of his red eyes, what appeared to be staggering gait and the smell of alcohol.

She said his attempts to walk away and then pull away from the officers and the fact he “thrashed his body around violently” to avoid being handcuffed, justified the charge of resisting arrest.

She found him guilty of disorderly conduct, a summary, or least serious, offense, because of his yelling and use of obscenities.

Doyle found Johnson not guilty of being drunk (he said he had only one beer that night) because the prosecution never established the degree of his intoxication.

Johnson’s attorney, Terry Despoy, said he hopes the judge will consider Johnson’s clean record and impose only a “minimal” fine on him when he is sentenced Aug. 1.

Despoy said he was “disappointed” in the judge’s guilty verdicts, noting that in the big picture, here was a man minding his own business. He had committed no crime yet he ends up being thrown on the ground, cuffed, pepper-sprayed and now will have a record.

Police, he said, should not have been so reactive .

“I’m not here to blame police. I’m just here to say, ‘Is this man guilty?'” Despoy said.

Assistant District Attorney Russell Montgomery said during his closing argument during the trial that police were not looking for problems that night and that Johnson caused the problem with the way he reacted.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.