Garrett Brown's criminal trial may have ended with an acquittal on insurance fraud on May 20, but the former city police officer's legal saga is far from over: His attorney says he hopes to rejoin the police force.
"He should absolutely get his job back," says William H. Difenderfer, Brown's attorney. "He just wants to get on with his life."
Brown, 42, was charged with lying to investigators when he told Erie Insurance he was rear-ended by a donut delivery truck driven by Blaine Johnston and Matt Mazzie in the early morning of Nov. 18, 2010. Johnston and Mazzie contend — in a story they recounted first in a 2011 City Paper story, and later in court — that Brown chased them in his pick-up truck and confronted them without identifying himself as an off-duty police officer.
In a series of confrontations, they alleged, Brown screamed profanities, threw coins at their window, punched the side of their van and then rammed it off the road. The pair filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Pittsburgh, Brown and seven other city police officers who responded to the incident that night at Children's Hospital.
Difenderfer says Brown was sitting at a red light when Johnston's van collided with the truck, from driving too fast. Brown didn't intentionally wreck it, Difenderfer says.
"He's a classic cop ... he loves his truck," he says. "He's not wrecking the truck for these two idiots."
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jill E. Rangos ruled during a May 20 non-jury trial that there were too many inconsistencies to say beyond a reasonable doubt that Brown lied to insurance investigators. (For more details from the trial, visit www.pghcitypaper.com.)
Rangos said that Mazzie and Johnston offered different versions of how Brown rammed their van. Johnston said he didn't see what part of Brown's truck struck their vehicle, but guessed it was the front quarter panel. Mazzie testified that Brown struck their van with his truck's back quarter panel. And while both men testified in court that their vehicle was moving, during a 911 call made by Mazzie at the time, he told dispatchers they'd been sitting at a stop light when they were struck.
"Some psycho just tried to run us off the road," Mazzie said. Both men testified in court that they feared for their safety.
In a 911 call made by Brown, the officer is heard telling dispatchers he was rear-ended and that the van drove away.
The case took another hit when the prosecution's accident-reconstruction expert, William Simcox Sr., was withdrawn by prosecutor Nicholas Radoycis Jr. after Rangos and Difenderfer questioned his credentials.
Rangos ruled that Brown hadn't been entirely honest in his insurance report. "It's pretty clear Mr. Brown did not answer truthfully [on the Erie Insurance accident questionnaire] as to if there had been any words between the parties," she said. "It's pretty clear there were words exchanged."
But, she ruled, there wasn't enough evidence to sustain a conviction because "[t]he witnesses were unclear on how the accident occurred," she said. "I need beyond a reasonable doubt at this point."
Brown can attempt to rejoin the force using arbitration, according to Bryan Campbell, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police. As of press time, no petition had been made, according to bureau spokeswoman Diane Richard. Michael LaPorte, FOP president, did not return calls for comment.
Mike Huss, the city's public-safety director, said Brown was terminated in September 2011 because of this incident. "We as an administration didn't have the same burden of proof as a criminal charge," Huss said. "And we have no intention of reversing our position."
Officer firings have been reversed in the past after not-guilty pleas, however. The city rehired Paul Abel after he was cleared in an off-duty altercation with Kaleb Miller. In 2011, a Commonwealth Court judge reinstated Eugene Hlavac, who was cleared in a 2009 incident of allegedly slapping his girlfriend and dislocating her jaw.
As City Paper reported in March 2011, citizen complaints have been filed against Brown in the past, though many were ruled unfounded or resulted in exoneration. In March 2011, the city settled a civil-rights case arising from a January 2008 traffic encounter — when Brown was off-duty — with Texas man Leonard Hamler.
As for Mazzie and Johnston's federal lawsuit — their attorney, Thomas McClain, says he is studying the verdict's impact.
Mazzie says he's concerned that Brown could be back on the streets. As for alleged discrepancies, Mazzie stands by his story.
"How do you concoct a story like that? Everything I said in my statement concurred with my 911 call," he says. "I know what happened that night."