Officers ask for dismissal of federal lawsuit
Hollidaysburg Borough and two of its police officers who arrested a student intern for leaving voicemail threats at several local schools have asked that a federal lawsuit by the intern for false arrest and false imprisonment be dismissed.
In a court filing, officers said police had “probable cause” to file charges, even though they were dropped within two days.
In a petition filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Johnstown by Harrisburg attorney Stephen B. Edwards, police officers — including Hollidaysburg Chief Rodney B. Estep Jr. and Patrolman Allen Fochler — were confronted on Nov. 21, 2019, with a situation in which the caller, describing himself as “Mr. Fantastic,” left voicemail messages at three elementary schools, the junior high school and the senior high school.
In the messages, the caller presented officers with an “ominous deadline” in which he stated “the education system (in the Hollidaysburg area schools) is going to change very quickly and very soon.”
Mr. Fantastic indicated that to ignore him would force him “to reallocate the resources of the world,” indicating he would strike the next day, according to the Hollidaysburg officers.
Fochler obtained copies of the messages, and during the initial stage of the investigation, was told by High School Principal Maureen Letcher and guidance counselor Hully Hoover that they were “positive” the caller was intern Scott Vinosky, who had recently been dismissed from his internship program for not following protocol when he forwarded a complaint of abuse by one of the district’s pupils to Pennsylvania’s ChildLine.
At the time, Vinosky was doing a 600-hour internship with the district in an effort to complete a master’s degree program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Upon receiving this information, Fochler called a meeting that included Chief Leo Berg of the Allegheny Township Police Department (one of the elementary schools was located in the township), Pennsylvania State Police Sgt. Jesse G. Moyer and administrators with the school district to discuss a response to the alleged threats.
“The group ultimately decided to file criminal charges against (Vinosky),” according to the Hollidaysburg petition.
It also stated, “The decision to charge and arrest (the intern) was made with the approval, encouragement and/or specific direction of Blair County District Attorney Richard Consiglio.”
Hollidaysburg contends that law enforcement “were confronted with a potential threat to multiple public schools that could materialize in less than 48 hours.”
Based on the voicemail identifications and the urgency of the situation, Hollidaysburg police, along with officers from Penn State, and the State College police went to Vinosky’s residence in State College, arrested him and placed him in the Blair County Prison.
The Vinosky lawsuit, filed in July, pointed out that while proceeding with the arrest, Logan Township police had taken another man — a former Hollidaysburg student — Javier Alberto Cantos Jr., into custody for a separate offense.
During his discussion with Logan police, Cantos had admitted his involvement in leaving threatening voicemails with the Hollidaysburg schools.
But Logan police never communicated that information to Hollidaysburg, not knowing about the voicemail investigation underway.
Vinosky was charged with terroristic threats, causing or risking a catastrophe, harassment and disorderly conduct.
In another development prior to his arrest, police were able to trace the phone calls to a number.
Vinosky’s lawsuit indicates that Chief Estep “could have connected the phone number associated with the messages to Cantos,” but he did not.
Eventually, police knew that the calls did not come from Vinosky and charges against the intern were dismissed and Cantos was charged. He is awaiting trial on the charges.
Hollidaysburg, in its petition, asked that the ensuing civil charges of false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution be dismissed by U.S. District Judge Stephanie L. Haines, pointing out that the Hollidaysburg officers are protected from liability by qualified immunity.
“This is a classic example of the Monday morning quarterbacking courts have cautioned against when judging Fourth Amendment claims against police officers,” the Hollidaysburg petition stated.
The Hollidaysburg police, it states, had probable cause to arrest Vinosky based on the voice identifications of Letcher and Hoover.
“The fact that hindsight shows the officers’ time would have been better spent investigating Javier Cantos’s involvement does nothing to undermine probable cause.
“Because Vinosky cannot show a lack of probable cause for his false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, (his) claims under federal and state law fail by necessity and must be dismissed,” according to the officers.
It continued by pointing out District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio’s approval of the charges further insulates the police against civil liability lawsuits.
The lawsuit by Vinosky “unequivocally states that District Attorney Consiglio directed Officer Fochler to file criminal charges … and expressly approved of the filing of criminal charges,” it was noted as a further defense of the officers’ actions.
Consiglio has also requested dismissal of the lawsuit because his role as prosecutor affords him immunity as well.
So far, Judge Haines has received requests to dismiss from Blair County, Penn State University, State College, Allegheny Township, the state police, Letcher and Hully, and Hollidaysburg.
She has given Vinosky’s attorney, Ronald P. Carnevali Jr. of Johnstown, until Nov. 30 to respond to all of the dismissal requests.
Her task will then be to decide which, if any, of the municipalities and defendants are to be dismissed from the lawsuit.