High court ruling may make officers individually liable for wrongful arrests

By Daniel Tepfer
The Connecticut Post Online

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against two city police officers by a man imprisoned for a gas station robbery he didn't commit.

The nation's highest court has let stand a lower court's ruling that a trial should decide whether Officer Jeremy DePietro and Detective Christopher Borona violated Christopher Russo's constitutional rights when they arrested him for the 2002 holdup even though a surveillance videotape of the crime apparently showed Russo was not the robber.

Russo's lawyer, Burton Weinstein, said the Supreme Court's ruling may have national significance because it would make every police officer individually liable for not pursuing evidence that could prove an arrestee's innocence.

He said Russo plans to pursue damages against the officers in federal court.

The city attorneys were not available this morning for comment on the ruling.

According to court documents, on Aug. 1, 2002, an Amoco gas station was held up by a lone gunman. DePietro obtained the station's surveillance tape and after using a video-photo machine to isolate still images of the robber, he prepared a selection of photos of men with similar appearance, including Russo.

The gas station employee on duty at the time of the heist picked Russo's photo as the man who had robbed him. Russo was subsequently arrested for first-degree robbery.

He was held for seven months until the charges against him were dismissed by a Superior Court judge.

Russo has prominent tattoos on his forearms, hands, neck and legs that were noted in the arresting officer's report. However, the robber captured on the gas station's videotape was free of tattoos.

Russo subsequently sued the police officers for violating his constitutional rights in U.S. District Court. A federal judge later threw out the suit, but last February that decision was overturned by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals which reinstated the lawsuit.

"If a jury credits Russo's evidence regarding DePietro's and Borona's conduct, and if it finds that the videotape provided adequate verification of Russo's innocence based on his unique physical characteristics, then Russo will have established that he was unreasonably seized by DePietro and Barona, in violation of this Fourth Amendment rights," the appeals court ruled.

The city then appealed the appeal court's decision to the Supreme Court, which late last week let the appeals decision stand. 

Copyright 2007 Connecticut Post Online

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