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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Charges dismissed in traffic case involving off-duty police officer

Posted By on Thu, Apr 21, 2011 at 4:22 PM

Criminal charges were dismissed today against a Carnegie man accused of leaving the scene of an accident with an off-duty Pittsburgh police officer.

Blaine Johnston walked out of the courtroom in the municipal courts building downtown, raised his arms in the air and exclaimed: "I'm free!".

Johnston had been charged with leaving the scene of an accident around 4 a.m. on Nov. 18. According to police, officer Garrett Brown -- who did not show up in court Thursday morning -- reported that Johnston rear-ended the back of his pickup truck while he was sitting at a red light at the corner of Baum and Melwood avenues. 

Brown said that he pulled up beside Johnston's donut delivery truck to exchange information, but Johnston sped away, Sgt. William Kunz wrote in the report. Days later, Johnston received a summons for leaving the scene of an accident, a third-degree misdemeanor.

As City Paper first reported in March, Johnston and his passenger, Matt Mazzie of Brookline, claim another version of events took place. According to Mazzie's and Johnston's versions, Brown, in a series of confrontations, threw coins at their window, punched their van, threatened to fight Johnston and rammed the van with his truck. 

Mazzie and Johnston filed a complaint of misconduct against Brown with the Citizens Police Review Board where the case is pending. A investigation is also pending against Brown with the Office of Municipal Investigations, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

This was the fourth preliminary hearing for the case, and for the third time, Brown did not show to testify at a preliminary hearing. Judge Robert Ravenstahl apologized to Johnston for his "aggravation" and dismissed the charges, but warned they could be re-filed. 

Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala said he couldn't comment on the possibility of charges being re-filed.

After the hearing, Johnston said he was relieved. "I feel great. This has been too much to bear since November," he said. 

"We feel this was the right outcome. He didn't do anything wrong," said Johnston's attorney Gerald O'Brien Jr. "Charges should have never been filed in the first place."

Johnston and O'Brien said they would weigh their options on whether to pursue a civil action against Brown. This March, the city finalized a $150,000 settlement in a civil-rights case arising from another late-night traffic encounter between an off-duty Brown and Texas man Leonard Hamler in January 2008. O'Brien represented Hamler in that case.

"I haven't discussed a [civil suit] with my client," O'Brien said." I can't say it will be or won't be filed." 

Johnston said that while he's glad his criminal charges are dismissed, he'd like to do something about Brown's alleged behavior. "I'm relieved it's over for me but I wouldn't want for someone else to go through this." 

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