Jury: Pin seizure violated rights
A jury in U.S. Middle District Court returned a verdict Thursday against a veteran Williamsport police officer, ending a three-day civil trial and five years of angst for Randy and Janete Shrey, who sued the veteran cop and waited for their day in court.
The couple filed the 2010 suit against police Agent Raymond O. Kontz III, and eight jurors believed Kontz unlawfully seized their prized Little League pin collection in the guise of an investigation and committed theft more than five years ago when Kontz was a captain overseeing the criminal investigative division.
To send a message, jurors in the case, presided by Judge Matthew W. Brann, awarded the Shreys $45,000 in punitive and $14,553 in compensatory damages.
“Perhaps now the district attorney will get off his hands and do something about this case,” said Michael J. Zicolello, their attorney.
Meanwhile, David MacMain, attorney for Kontz, who also was an internal affairs officer, congratulated Zicolello and the Shreys, and left the building.
“I am very disappointed with the outcome,” Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said later in the evening. “Ray Kontz is a good, honest cop. In today’s world, anybody can sue for anything.”
In his closing remarks, Zicolello said the case centered on evidence showing Kontz having never received a complaint from Little League about a pin replicating the badge of the Williamsport Bureau of Police.
The occurrence has affected the Shreys by causing them emotional distress. The consequences that come from taking away their passion, their true hobby since 2003 and before, can only be eased by returning a favorable verdict. “It was like Christmas to them, the two weeks of the Little League World Series,” Zicolello said.
Zicolello asked jurors to punish Kontz and to deter other police officers who might take these actions by sending a message that a city doesn’t want its police to act in this manner.
MacMain, meanwhile, said returning a verdict against Kontz meant calling him a liar and a thief and believing others took part in a conspiracy.
“It is what it is,” Zicolello said, adding the evidence came down to a fabricated complaint by Kontz that Little League called police headquarters.
In fact, Donna Bower, police office manager, said she fielded a call from someone who wanted to buy Little League pins that were for sale on the Internet, Zicolello said. Bower said she then asked city Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman if they were selling pins on the Internet, and Bower called Little League to determine if they knew anything about it and they did not.
Foresman testified that Bower showed him the pin on the computer while she said she did not, and would not even know the first thing about finding it on eBay, according to Zicolello.
Meanwhile, James Ferguson, assistant director of risk management for Little League, said he could not recall talking to police, but when shown a deposition where testimony differed, he remembered contacting police, Zicolello said.
Ferguson’s concern was the Williamsport police badge pin could be used by pedophiles or misused with the World Series arriving in a month. Zicolello said. Ferguson was not concerned about the Little League logo. “His testimony was not consistent with the deposition,” Zicolello said.
Ferguson also said he never saw the pin until the deposition in 2011. “That’s important because Kontz told him how to find it on eBay,” Zicolello said.
Zicolello said evidence shows Kontz and Foresman did not like someone making and selling the city badge replica. “They know Little League is not complaining about their use of the logo,” Zicolello said.
Lycoming County First Assistant District Attorney Kenneth Osokow testified that he could not remember the conversation he had with the police over the issue, Zicolello said. Osokow also said he would not say somebody would have probable cause because a city police badge pin was made and sold, Zicolello said.
Kontz and former police Agent Stephen Sorage testified that cordial language was used in the July 14, 2008 visit to the Shreys. However, Randy Shrey said Kontz was “losing control.”
“The Shreys have no reason to tell you something different than what actually happened,” Zicolello said. The Shreys’ Little League pins were taken after threats by Kontz, he said. “Do you really believe Randy Shrey made up a story that Kontz wagged his finger in his face” and threatened him with fictitious felony charges, Zicolello asked jurors.
Zicolello also referred to testimony of police Lt. Steven Helm who said he believed some officers in the department don’t believe Kontz has the best reputation.
In closing, MacMain thanked the jurors for their service and spoke about how important the verdict was to Kontz – who has been called a liar and thief after 17 years of exemplary service, including winning officer of the year in Lycoming County.
MacMain said the facts are that Ferguson contacted the police to make a complaint that was passed on to Foresman. The concern of Ferguson was whether the Little League logo was used without permission and knowledge of the organization and that one pin resembled a police badge and could be used by people who did not have good intentions.
MacMain said Kontz admitted he should have done a proper report regarding evidence collection. Sorage, he said, thought that two sections of the crimes code might apply regarding the city police souvenir badge and the department contacted Osokow, an experienced prosecutor who police and law enforcement officers turn to for his legal knowledge.
While Osokow testified he didn’t recall a conversation five years ago, such calls and advice are given all of the time, MacMain said, adding that Osokow said there was no reason not to believe the conversation occurred.
MacMain went over the questions jurors had to decide in the case. The first was indisputable, he said, regarding Kontz having a conversation with Osokow. Secondly, did Kontz rely on good faith based on a legal opinion by Osokow to go to the Shreys and third, did Shrey consent to turn over the pins.
MacMain said Kontz exercised restraint at the visit, telling the court he did everything not to seek a search and arrest warrant, by telling the Shreys they could avoid that if they turned over the pins.
“It’s telling Shrey voluntarily turned over additional pins,” MacMain said. Whether he did that the next day at City Hall or whether Kontz came to the house is disputed, based on evidence presented. MacMain said Kontz had lawful justification to go to their house, either to ask them to turn over the pins or to seek search and arrest warrants and to file charges.