Police Must Face Suit After PA Arson Acquittal

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — A woman’s acquittal on arson charges does not block her from suing police who she says fabricated the evidence against her, the Third Circuit ruled.
     The fire broke out on Nov. 21, 2012, on the third floor of Michelle Black’s childhood home in Lower Merion Township, Pennsylvania.
     Black’s mother had sold the home two days before the fire, but the buyers could not get insurance because of the outdated electrical wiring was seen as a fire hazard.
     Needing to upgrade the wiring before moving in, the buyers pushed up the closing but agreed to Black’s mother remove her possessions from the property while their electricians worked.
     Black had been living in California but was in Pennsylvania to help her mother move.
     The fire started while Black and the electricians were in the house. Black says the flames left a V-shaped pattern of damage extending from a 220-volt electrical outlet, but the fire marshal nevertheless decided that the fire had not been accidental.
     Pennsylvania authorities issued a warrant for Black’s arrest that December, after she had returned to California.
     In addition to retaining an expert who testified that the fire was unequivocally electrical, not arson, Black submitted evidence that Montgomery County and the township had fabricated evidence against her and suppressed evidence that exculpated her.
     The state’s entire case apparently rested on a box of matches found on a windowsill in the room where the fire started. Black says no one ever tested the matchbox, however, for DNA or fingerprints, or analyzed whether the match strike pad had been used.
     A jury took less than 40 minutes to find Black not guilty in 2014, and she filed suit against investigators for malicious prosecution, among other claims.
     Black says the fire marshal failed to preserve the outlet, electrical box and other evidence.
     As for the marshal’s proposition that the outlet could not have stated the fire, because it was supposedly not working, Black says he lied about seeing the wire to the outlet cut 18 inches from the outlet.
     Black also accuses the fire inspector of not having checked the circuit panel in the basement or the outlets. He allegedly left out the fact that electricians were at the scene to fix the wiring at the time of the fire, and he allegedly failed to note that the live wires were never tested, even though they were burned.
     Though a federal judge dismissed Black’s case, the Third Circuit reversed Tuesday.
     “Black has sufficiently alleged that her liberty was intentionally restrained … and her acquittal does not preclude her claim that the defendants intentionally fabricated evidence in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment,” U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Chagares wrote for a three-person panel.

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