A Pennsylvania State University student has filed a federal lawsuit against State College Borough and two of its police officers over accusations he was falsely arrested two winters ago during riots over the firing of the late Joe Paterno, the school’s iconic football coach whose downfall came amid the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
On behalf of Delaware County resident Matthew J. Maser, lawyers from the Montgomery County firm of McCausland Keen & Buckman filed the suit Sept. 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Maser claims he was arrested without probable cause shortly after midnight on Nov. 10, 2011, near the site of a crowd protesting Paterno’s firing after decades serving as head football coach of the Nittany Lions. Maser, the suit states, had just finished playing laser tag with friends at his fraternity, Pi Kappa Phi, and was walking along the campus toward the site of the rioting, when he was picked up by police.
The plaintiff’s goal was simply to stand near a local store and observe the scene, the complaint says, and at no time did Maser engage in any “malicious or illegal activity,” but he was nevertheless accosted by police officers during crowd dispersement.
The complaint says Maser and his friends were complying with police orders to vacate the area when the plaintiff was grabbed by an officer, thrown against a mailbox and detained without probable cause.
Maser was told he would be charged with a felony and likely expelled from the university, the suit states.
About a month later, State College Officer Michael J. Pieniazek, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, filed a criminal complaint against Maser charging the student with failure to disperse upon official order, a second-degree misdemeanor, and disorderly conduct, a summary offense.
The civil action states that information contained in the officer’s criminal complaint was false, including the location where officers said Maser was standing at the time of the incident.
Prosecutors ultimately dismissed the charges against Maser in light of what the civil action calls the “falsehoods” asserted by Pieniazek, and another officer, Martin S. Hanes, who is listed as a co-defendant in the litigation.
Maser’s arrest and criminal charges were officially expunged on Dec. 27, 2012, the record shows.
The complaint says Maser was deprived of his liberty and was embarrassed and humiliated by the defendant officers during the course of the incident, and that he has suffered from mental anguish and emotional distress in the wake of the ordeal.
The Borough of State College, the suit states, violated Maser's constitutional rights through its “encouragement, toleration, and ratification of, and its deliberate indifference to the need to properly supervise and discipline Officer Defendants, and the need to properly train its police officers … regarding for when it is permissible to detain, arrest and charge citizens, and the standards for reasonable suspicion and probable cause, all in the face of numerous ongoing complaints and incidents in which officers violated people’s rights.”
The complaint contains counts of unlawful detention and arrest, malicious prosecution, excessive and unreasonable force, all in violation of the Fourth Amendment, as well as retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.
The suit also includes state law claims for assault and battery, false arrest and false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.
Maser seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, as well as costs and delay damages.
The suit was filed by McCausland Keen & Buckman attorney Glenn S. Gitomer.
Benjamin Picker, Gitomer’s co-counsel, said through email correspondence that his firm would not be offering additional comment on the litigation, other than to say the “facts alleged in the Complaint speak for themselves,” and that the case would not be tried in the media, but rather “in a court of law, should that become necessary.”
The national media, however, has already appeared to have pounced on this rather local story, just as it did with the Jerry Sandusky saga.
The Associated Press this week penned a story about the Maser case, which was subsequently picked up by news outlets across the country.
The Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal itself made local, national and international headlines following Sandusky’s conviction in June 2012 of sexually abusing a number of underage boys.
Sandusky, who worked as the defensive coordinator for the Penn State Nittany Lions, is serving out a 30-to-60-year prison sentence for his crimes.
Last week, a three-judge state Superior Court panel heard appeals arguments in during a proceeding in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Sandusky’s lawyers are attempting to have their client’s conviction overturned and a new trial ordered, claiming prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate time allotted to the defense to build its case.
The federal case number is 4:13-cv-02422-MWB-SES.