Houston man sues Canonsburg, police department and officer for violation of rights

June 6, 2014

A Houston man is suing the Borough of Canonsburg, the borough police department and Canonsburg police Sgt. James Spingola after he was arrested and charged for using obscene language.

Richard Pustovrh, 24, of 109 Pine Ave., and his attorney, Keith Owen Campbell, filed the lawsuit Thursday in federal court.

Pustovrh and Campbell are claiming Pustovrh’s 2012 arrest was a violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights, court documents show.

Pustovrh was arrested Sept. 30, 2012, at the place he was working at the time, Auto Zone at 112 E. Pike St. in Canonsburg, after he was sent home following a conversation with his managers.

Pustovrh later returned after he realized he left his phone charger, and when his managers spotted him, they called police, according to court records

Once police arrived, Pustovrh began to use foul language to express his feelings about the situation, but the words were not directed toward police, court records said.

Spingola approached Pustovrh and asked him to stop swearing, but Pustovrh swore again and Spingola arrested him, the record shows.

Pustovrh was cited for disorderly conduct. Though he initially was found guilty before District Judge David Mark and fined $25, the charge was later withdrawn before Washington County Judge Gary Gilman in July 2013.

Pustovrh and Campbell allege in their lawsuit that the “Borough of Canonsburg Police Department has a custom, pattern, practice and/or policy of authorizing its officers to issue citations illegally to citizens under Pennsylvania’s disorderly conduct statute based on their use of speech protected under the First Amendment.”

Canonsburg police Chief R.T. Bell declined to comment. Patrick Derrico, the solicitor for the borough, said he has not yet been served with the lawsuit. He declined to comment any further until he had an opportunity to review the case.

A subsection of the Pennsylvania disorderly conduct code makes it a crime if a person uses obscene language or makes an obscene gesture with the intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or harm, according to Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

The statute allows for a maximum fine of $300 and/or 90 days in jail. Rose said the courts have been very “limited in their application” of what constitutes obscene.

“It must be sexual in nature and have no redeeming value,” Rose said.

While she is not familiar with this case, Rose said that judges normally rule in favor of the plaintiffs in these types of cases.

“Police officers are taught in their training not to react,” she said.

Both Rose and Campbell noted the particular word used by Pustovrh is protected under the First Amendment.

Campbell did not reply to attempts to seek further comment.

Campbell is seeking a declaratory judgment that Spingola violated Pustovrh’s constitutional rights and that the municipality and police department have a custom of violating citizens’ First Amendment rights.

He also is seeking damages for “personal humiliation, embarrassment, emotional harm, etc.,” and punitive damages in the amount of $100,000.

A jury trial has been demanded.

Francesca Sacco joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in November 2013, and covers the Washington County Courthouse and education. Prior to working with the Observer-Reporter, Francesca was a staff writer with a Gannett paper in Ohio. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor’s degree in print and broadcast journalism.

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