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Crossing a Thin Blue Line: Cyclist at heart of unusual Pittsburgh police dispute



At roughly 8 p.m. on Sept. 2, James Takos pedaled his bike through the streets of Oakland, shouting, "Drunk people shouldn't ride bicycles!" And as if to prove the point, the 59-year-old struck a curb while riding against traffic down South Bouquet Street, flipping over his handlebars, and slamming his head into a stop sign. For nearly a minute, he lay unconscious in the street, bleeding profusely from the back of his head. 

And when he came to, his headaches really began. 

Takos' accident landed him in the middle of an unusual dispute between two Pittsburgh police officers: one convinced that Takos needed only medical attention, the other determined to file charges against him. Eight months later, those differences would result in an unusual court hearing, in which the two officers ended up testifying against each other.

"Usually officers will support their brother or sister officers no matter what happens," says John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "But this is a really unusual story." 


On April 19, Takos stood before District Judge James Hanley Jr. facing three charges stemming from his accident. Among them: two charges of driving under the influence of alcohol. 

Riding a bike drunk is, in fact, against the law in Pennsylvania. Under state law, "[e]very person riding a pedalcycle upon a roadway ... shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle."

Still, a charge of cycling while drunk "happens very, very infrequently," says Duquesne University law professor Bruce Antkowiak. 

"It's really rare," agrees Scott Bricker, executive director of Bike Pittsburgh, a bicycling advocacy and education group. 

Rarer still was the fact that both the prosecution and the defense had police officers testifying on their behalf. 

The first officer on the scene Sept. 2 was Charles Bosetti, who was called to the accident by dispatchers. Paramedics, who arrived after receiving a 911 call from a witness, called police for assistance when they were unable to convince Takos to board the ambulance to receive treatment.

Bosetti testified -- for the defense -- that Takos had done no property damage, and hadn't hurt anyone other than himself. Accordingly, Bosetti said, he decided to treat the incident as "a medical issue," rather than filing charges. Worried about a concussion or other injury, Bosetti testified, "I told [Takos] we were not going to arrest him" if he agreed to go to the hospital.

But before Bosetti could convince Takos to climb into the ambulance, officer Lisa Luncinski arrived on the scene. 

"It was obvious [Takos] was impaired by alcoholic beverages," Luncinski testified -- for the prosecution. "I could smell him from 20 feet away." 

When Bosetti told her he'd already decided not to press charges, Luncinski said, she approached Sgt. Brian Elledge, who'd also arrived on scene. 

"I asked Sgt. Elledge if he was going to let [Bosetti] blow off arrests," she testified. "Then I got permission to continue the case."

Eventually, Takos did take an ambulance to the hospital. But four days after the accident, Luncinski obtained a search warrant for Takos' medical records. Records revealed that his blood alcohol content as measured at the hospital was .193 percent -- more than twice the legal limit. And on Sept. 9, Luncinski filed charges against Takos. 

After learning of those charges, Bosetti says he went to the district attorney's office to express his concerns. Chief among them, he told City Paper in an interview, was that the charges might violate Takos' Miranda rights -- the right to be warned that anything a suspect says can be used against him. Bosetti says Takos admitted he'd been drinking only after Bosetti told him he wouldn't be facing charges.

After speaking with Bosetti, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus informed Takos' defense attorney, James Wymard, about the conversation. Wymard then subpoenaed Bosetti to testify. 

"To go so far as to testify against a brother in arms ... is unusual," says Pittsburgh attorney Jeffrey Pollock, who handles DUI cases. "This is extremely uncharacteristic."

"To have police officers testifying in an opposite fashion is very unusual," agrees David Shrager, another local lawyer who does DUI work. "It's very rare."


Bosetti's trip to the DA's office proved useful to the defense. That's because Luncinski's criminal complaint -- the document that provides the basis for charges -- didn't mention Bosetti's presence on the scene, or his objection to filing charges.

In an earlier incident report, Luncinski briefly mentioned Bosetti, noting that Takos had "surrendered his bicycle" to her colleague. But in Luncinski's criminal complaint, Bosetti doesn't appear at all.

During the April 19 hearing, Wymard cross-examined Luncinski about the contents of her criminal complaint. 

"Did you put in the affidavit that Bosetti showed up?" the defense attorney asked. 

"Yes," she answered. 

"Show me."

As Luncinski began fruitlessly reviewing the complaint, Wymard then said, "You omitted Bosetti showing up, didn't you? ... It was misleading to the court."

"That's troubling," says Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board. "It seems to be a significant omission."

Luncinski's report should have noted Bosetti's presence on the scene, Burkoff says. But "police reports are rarely perfect," the Pitt law professor adds. "If she left [Bosetti] out intentionally, it is a bigger deal. But we just don't know that."

In any case, Burkoff says, there's no reason Bosetti's objections should have dissuaded Luncinski from filing charges. "It wouldn't matter if 100 officers were there and 99 said there should be no charges," he says. "Any officer has the right to file charges."

As for there being any Miranda violations involved in the case, Burkoff only says "it's possible" that a violation occurred. 

After about a half-hour of testimony, Judge Hanley made his ruling. While acknowledging that he probably heard enough evidence to sustain the charges, the judge said, "I don't want to send this case up the street" to be appealed by a higher court. He dismissed the DUI charges, but found Takos guilty of lesser charges of public intoxication and disorderly conduct.


That verdict closes the book on the Takos case. But any bad feelings in the Zone 4 police station, where both Bosetti and Luncinski are based, may be harder to resolve.  

As Bosetti testified April 19, Luncinski "thinks I blow off arrests; I believe she railroads people."

Bosetti is a 22-year veteran of the Pittsburgh Police. A former vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police, he's often been a lightning rod within the department. In 2002, he penned an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette denouncing both police brass and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who had been pushing for police reforms. But in later years, he allied with the CPRBoard, joining with Pittinger to demand an investigation of the 1995 death of motorist Jerry Jackson. Bosetti had accused police administrators of covering up Jackson's shooting death in the Armstrong Tunnels, at the hands of Housing Authority police officer John Charmo.

Bosetti tells CP that the Takos case touched a nerve with him. Arresting Takos was unnecessary, he says -- especially since Takos had no prior criminal record -- and Luncinski is a "bounty hunter," who inflates her earnings with court appearances. Charging Takos was an effort to "cash in on this guy's misery," he says. 

Police earn overtime pay for testifying against the people they arrest -- and few have earned as much as Luncinski, a 14-year veteran of the force often tasked with DUI details. According to city pay records, Luncinski, who makes roughly $60,000 in annual base pay, logged 449 court hours from Feb. 1, 2010, to Feb. 1, 2011, earning a total of $18,192.09 in court premium pay. 

In an interview, Luncinski says her arrests are warranted; in 2009, in fact, she was lauded by the Pennsylvania DUI Association for making 90 DUI arrests in one year. By contrast, she says, Bosetti "blows off" legitimate arrests. "According to his court records, nobody commits any crimes," she says. "I respond to my 911 calls like they're my family members calling for the police. He does not."

Comparing the officers' pay records does reveal a significant difference in premium earnings, of which court pay is a significant part. From January 2007 through October 2010, Luncinski earned $181,854.67 in premium pay. Bosetti made $7,859.99. 

But Bosetti says part of being a good officer is using discretion about when charges are necessary. His 2009 job-performance evaluation says he "anticipates and diffuses volatile situations." His 2010 evaluation states that he "handles his calls in an appropriate manner, and avoids complaints from the public."

Complaints from Luncinksi, however, don't seem likely to go away. 

"Obviously, there is more to this issue," Judge Hanley said before banging the gavel. Referring to the two officers before him, he added, "That's in your house."

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