Judge dismisses parts of unlawful arrest lawsuit
HOLLIDAYSBURG – A Blair County judge, citing police and governmental immunity, has dismissed the bulk of a lawsuit brought by an Antis Township woman after she was wrongfully jailed for two days in 2012 following a minor traffic accident.
Judge Daniel J. Milliron is permitting the woman’s Pittsburgh lawyer, William Gagliardino, to amend his legal complaint seeking damages for violation of her due process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The defendants in that amended lawsuit will include Cambria County and one of the county’s constables, Terry S. Geibig.
The warrant that resulted in the woman’s arrest stemmed from a private criminal complaint against a person named Theresa Gorman from Mechanicsburg, who was a suspect in passing two bad checks.
The private complaint was authorized by the Cambria County district attorney. Geibig attempted to serve it in 2006 but believed the person he was seeking was named “Theresa Garman” instead of “Theresa Gorman.”
When the suspect failed to appear for a court date, a warrant was issued for her arrest under the name Garman.
On July 18, 2012, Theresa Garman of Antis Township was involved in what Gagliardino described in his civil complaint as a “fender bender” near Duncansville.
The investigating officer was Blair Township Police Chief Roger White, a former detective with the Altoona Police Department.
A check of the name Theresa Garman indicated she was wanted in Cambria County, and he placed the woman – who had no prior record, was employed and had never lived in Mechanicsburg – in the Blair County Prison despite her protests. She was incarcerated for two days before being released.
Her attorney sued in Blair County and named as defendants the Blair Township Police Department, the township, White, Cambria County and Geibig.
Milliron started off his lengthy opinion by noting it originated “from a series of unfortunate events that began in 2005.”
That year, the Mechanicsburg woman and a male friend allegedly passed two bad checks totaling $2,348 to the owner of Precious Metals and Diamonds Co. in Johnstown.
A private criminal complaint was incorrectly filed for a woman named “Theresa Garman” instead of “Theresa Gorman” in April 2006.
The Blair Township chief through his attorney contended that he had probable cause to make an arrest even though the warrant bearing the wrong name was invalid. Milliron cited a federal case that stated an “erroneously issued warrant cannot itself provide probable cause for an arrest.”
But the judge stated that the officer relied on a “facially valid warrant” when he arrested Garman. He said there was “no indication that defendant White was aware the bench warrant was issued in error and [Garman’s] subsequent arrest unlawful.”
“The Court concludes that a reasonable official in these circumstances would have believed that probable cause existed for [Garman’s] arrest,” the judge ruled.
White’s belief that it was a valid warrant entitled the Blair County officer to qualify for immunity, the judge stated.
Milliron also granted immunity to the Cambria County District Attorney and the Cambria judge who issued the bench warrant.
He ruled out punishment damages in the case.
Milliron said that he was sympathetic toward the victim who was mistakenly arrested, but he stated, “The Court cannot allow certain claims against the defendants to go forward as immunity protects their actions.”
But he said Garman can file an amended civil complaint against Cambria County and Geibig.
Gagliardino could not be reached for comment Friday.