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Lawyer disheartened as Fayette church's drug-raid suit heads to trial

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Friday, March 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

A federal lawsuit alleging Fayette County violated the constitutional rights of members of the Church of Universal Love and Music during a 2009 drug raid will go to trial because attempts to settle it have failed, according to the church's attorney.

“We're headed to trial, unfortunately,” said Greg Koerner of Koerner & Associates of New York City.

“Judge (Donetta) Ambrose already said the search warrant is outrageously broad,” Koerner said. “It's an outrage to Fayette County citizens, that their government allowed this, had this vindictive warrant that was totally unconstitutional, and now it's totally outrageous that instead of settling this thing, we are preparing for trial.”

Church founder William D. Pritts and several attendees claim in the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh that they were illegally searched during a worship concert held Aug. 1, 2009, on his Bullskin property.

Officers armed with a warrant arrested 23 people and seized two truckloads of suspected drugs and paraphernalia.

The warrant was issued by a county judge based on an application from a drug task force officer describing alleged drug activity undercover officers observed during May and July church concerts/outdoor worship services.

Ambrose, who is now a senior judge, found in September 2012 that the “all persons” search warrant for Pritts' 147-acre property was invalid.

Ambrose said the affidavit for the warrant failed to show that police had reason to believe either that everyone on the property would be engaged in criminal activity or that the property was dedicated to criminal activity.

The ruling settled several disputed claims in the case but left for a jury to decide whether police violated concertgoers' civil rights and whether county officials orchestrated the raid out of spite against the church.

The 2009 concert was held after Pritts dropped a religious-freedom lawsuit against the county that year and Fayette officials agreed he could resume holding concerts.

Pritts and the county's attorney, Marie Milie Jones of Pittsburgh, appeared in court on Thursday before Ambrose for a settlement conference. Koerner attended by phone.

According to a one-page document issued by the court, the two sides reached no settlement during the 35-minute meeting and a trial date has been set for July 22.

Jones could not be reached for comment.

Koerner said his clients were seeking a “reasonable” monetary sum to avert a trial, but he would not reveal the amount.

“Mr. Pritts and the others are reasonable and they want the case settled, but the county doesn't want to pay (anything but) zero,” Koerner said. “All we want to do is move on with our lives. The church was destroyed as a result of the illegal raid.”

A settlement agreement signed by both sides in March 2009 resulted in a county insurer paying Pritts $75,000 and allowing 12 events to be held annually on his property.

The settlement included numerous land use conditions and limited the number of people attending events to 1,500. It stipulated that both sides would not tolerate violations of law regarding drug or alcohol use by attendees.

Pritts sued the county in 2006 after officials used zoning restrictions to prevent the outdoor events.

Pritts claimed the county violated his right to religious freedom because zoning officials repeatedly refused to issue permits that would have allowed the nondenominational services. County officials claimed Pritts started his church after they rejected his application for zoning permits for commercial-recreational activity.

In 2005, the zoning office ruled Pritts was operating a music business instead of a church. Neighbors complained for years about noise and traffic from daylong summer concerts, which included artists such as funk pioneer George Clinton and Grammy winners Bela Fleck and The Flecktones.

Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com

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