Luzerne County sued for alleged civil rights violations

The arrest of Michael Zabresky on December 28, 2009, was not unusual for Luzerne County officers. It was a routine procedure, handled in the standard manner. However, Zabresky is currently involved in another encounter with the judicial system, but of a very different nature. He and attorney Joseph Murray are suing eight members of the Luzerne County Domestic Relations Section for violating his Fourth Amendment rights.

When officers arrived at Zabresky’s house to arrest him, they did not show him a warrant. They did not bring a warrant with them. In fact, they had not even seen one. They had simply been told by the enforcement supervisor that a warrant existed and that Zabresky should be picked up.

While handcuffed in the back of the police car, Zabresky phoned his lawyer, Michael May. It is Luzerne County policy for individuals who are to be arrested for failure to pay child support to be given the opportunity to purge, meaning, pay the delinquent child support directly to the officers, thus avoiding arrest. Zabresky was not initially given this opportunity. After his lawyer contacted the Director of Domestic Relations, however, he was taken to the Office of Domestic Relations, where he paid $250 in back child support and was released.

Later, investigation into the warrant showed that even this aspect of the arrest was unclear. The warrant stated that  Zabresky was to be arrested for failure to attend a hearing. Not only was this assertion false, there was not even a hearing on record that he was supposed to have attended. An additional stamp on the warrant claimed that the justification for the arrest was “parole violation.” Court officials say that it was the unpaid child support that was the cause of the arrest, but both the failure to attend a nonexistent hearing and the missed child support payments could be perceived as parole violations. It is still unclear precisely why the warrant was issued.

The day’s chain of events is generally undisputed by both sides. Parole Officer Eugene Duffy of the Domestic Relations Section of the Court of Common Pleas noted that Zabresky had violated his parole. He ordered a bench warrant to be sent out for his arrest, and handed the paperwork for the bench warrant to a secretary to be executed. The secretary then brought it to another secretary, who stamped it, thus putting it into effect.

There are several glaring problems with this procedure. There was never a written request for a warrant or an affidavit of probable cause for it. Nobody made an official presentation before a judge; there is in fact no evidence that a judge even saw the warrant.

Further, the use of a bench warrant in this setting is inappropriate. A bench warrant is issued by a judge, usually during a hearing. In Zabresky’s case, no hearing was being held and the warrant was not initiated by a judge.

As already noted, officers presented no warrant when they arrested Zabresky. Neither he nor his attorney actually saw it until weeks after the arrest. No judge actually wrote on the warrant; all of the requisite markings were merely stamped by a secretary. The stamp that was used is kept, according to the secretaries, in a public place where it may be accessed by any employee at any time. Although Zabresky is not claiming in his suit that the warrant was falsified, the existence of this policy throws the validity of all such paperwork from the originating office into question. With so much talk about confidentiality and fraud making headlines daily, it is worrisome that Luzerne County is not more vigilant about protecting its integrity.

None of the actions taken by Luzerne County officials in this case were contrary to the county’s policies. They do not dispute the facts of the case, they only assert that Zabresky’s rights were not violated. Yet the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution states that “no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation.” The actions taken by Luzerne County clearly do not involve oaths or affirmations of probable cause for the warrant. Zabresky was not “secure in [his] person against . . . seizure” nor was he provided a warrant at the time to justify his arrest.

The county’s response to this matter shows that many other individuals likely had their rights violated in similar ways. Zabresky has bravely chosen to stand up for himself by pursuing this lawsuit. Hopefully his persistence, and the focus of the public eye on these unjust practices, will promote positive change and protect the rights of future defendants.

The Independent Gazette will provide updates on this matter in subsequent issues.

 

  • Emily Rose DeMarco
  • Emily Rose DeMarco is a 4th year nursing and political science student at the University of Scranton. She is the secretary of the Lehigh Valley Tea Party. In addition to writing for the Scranton and Trenton branches of the Gazette, she also blogs for Young Americans for Liberty and Watchdog Wire. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyRose1776


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