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Hazleton settles lawsuit

To pay $77,500 in federal lawsuit alleging city man wrongfully jailed for three months.

SCRANTON – Hazleton city has agreed to pay $77,500 to settle a federal lawsuit filed by a man who was jailed for three months after a police officer mistakenly identified him as a person who was wanted on a robbery charge in another state.

Eric Delvonne Smith, 36, filed suit in December 2007 against the city and police officer Keith McAlarney, alleging the officer ignored information that would have easily shown he was not the person in question.

According to the suit, Smith was taken into custody on Jan. 11, 2006, after he called police to intervene in a custody dispute he had with the mother of his children.

McAlarney arrived and ran Smith’s name through a federal database. He took Smith into custody after mistakenly identifying him as Edgar Michael Smith, a man with the same birth date, who was wanted in King County, Wash.

Smith’s attorney, Shelly Centini of the Dyller Law Firm in Wilkes-Barre, said Smith repeatedly and vehemently protested that he was not the wanted person, but McAlarney failed to investigate.

Centini said Smith was taken to the Luzerne County Correctional Facility, where he continued to protest that police had the wrong man. Officials at the prison heeded his request and sent him for a fingerprint check, which revealed he was telling the truth. He was released on April 11, 2006.

Centini said the entire situation could have been avoided had police run Smith’s fingerprints when he was first taken into custody. She said police contend they did, but evidence clearly contradicts that.

“You can’t use the same system once to exonerate the guy and the other time say it is the same guy,” she said.

Centini said the physical description of Eric Smith also differed significantly from Edgar Smith, but McAlarney ignored those discrepancies.

Attorney Jack Dean, who represented the city, said police maintain McAlarney did nothing wrong. Dean said the suit was settled at the request of the insurance company, which did not want to incur the expense of taking the case to trial.

Dean said the payment of $77,500, which includes attorney fees, is a “nominal amount” for a civil rights claim. Such claims can approach hundreds of thousands of dollars after attorney fees, which are paid in addition to any monetary award to the plaintiff, are calculated in.

“This was a modest settlement which is reflective of what we thought our liability was,” Dean said.

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