Misdemeanor charges have been dismissed in the case of an anti-war protester who had maintained he was only trying to photograph a Pittsburgh police sergeant in action when he was arrested April 3.
The protester, Noah Willumsen, a University of Pittsburgh student from Bloomfield, was among 25 demonstrators picketing Shadyside's Marines recruiting station, on Ellsworth Avenue, on April 3. When a juvenile protester was arrested by Sgt. William Vollberg while loudly objecting to Vollberg's confrontation with yet a third picketer, Willumsen tried to photograph Vollberg with his cell phone. The sergeant slapped the phone from Willumsen's hand and grabbed him during the arrest.
Willumsen's lawyer, Erika Kreisman, tried to make the Sept. 25 preliminary hearing about Vollberg's actions. But District Justice Randy Martini kept the focus on the charges facing Willumsen: failure of disorderly persons to disperse and obstruction of administration of law.
Or, as Vollberg put it when asked by Kreisman whether he had squeezed Willumsen's neck during the arrest: "I don't believe I did, but even if I did, so what?"
During the hearing, Vollberg admitted protesters "weren't being belligerent," but he maintained that Willumsen, "suddenly unprovoked leapt between [other protesters] and thrust something in my face." He didn't realize it was merely a phone, he said.
Willumsen contends Vollberg walked several feet toward him to strike the phone away. He showed the court the photo of Vollberg he had taken at the moment Vollberg knocked it away. The image shows Vollberg from about mid-chest up, and includes a view of others to his side, as well as behind him -- a shot Kreisman argued wasn't possible from a foot away.
But Martini dismissed many of Kreisman's arguments, including Willumsen's medical records from an April 3 neck examination at Pitt's student health service. He also barred Willumsen from presenting two witnesses, including a picketer prepared to say that Willumsen merely held his cellular phone out toward Vollberg without approaching him.
But Martini dismissed the charges and instead convicted Willumsen of disorderly conduct -- a summary offense that will not require a full-blown trial, but that carries a fine of $300, plus court costs. Martini offered no explanation for the dismissal except that he didn't want the case sent up to Common Pleas Court.
As of press time Willumsen was still deciding, with the local ACLU, whether to file a civil lawsuit alleging excessive force. For him, he says, the case is all about "the right to photograph police, and having that right protects you from the abuse of power."