Judge tosses civil suit against the city
12:28 AM, Mar. 29, 2012 | By Jennifer Portman Democrat senior writer
A federal judge on Wednesday tossed out a lawsuit filed by a Tallahassee businessman who claimed a flawed police probable-cause affidavit led to his wrongful arrest for the killing of his wife.
Richard Kelley Harte, the former owner of Capital Business Systems, Inc., was arrested in March 2007, accused of drowning his wife Barbara Harte in their bathtub in November 2006. Harte sued the city and lead Tallahassee Police Department investigator Jeff Mahoney last year, contending TPD was negligent and his civil rights were violated. The lawsuit said Mahoney made up information and left out relevant facts in the probable-cause statement he took to a Leon circuit judge to get a warrant for Harte’s arrest.
But U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle dismissed Harte’s arguments. After a two-and-half hour summary-judgment hearing, the judge ruled that based on the information available, Mahoney reasonably could conclude Harte killed his wife.
“This record establishes without dispute that there was probable cause for his arrest,” Hinkle said. “The record is chock-full of information that Mr. Harte had a long and sustained pattern of domestic abuse against Mrs. Harte. … How do you get that many bruises by being a sloppy drunk?”
Hinkle said the information obtained by Mahoney and other investigators showed a “classic” case of domestic violence. The judge pointed to a reported history of physical abuse of Barbara Harte by her husband, a lack of sufficient explanation for acute blows to her head and recent, extensive bruises, as well as incorrect statements made to the police by Richard Kelley Harte.
Harte spent more than six weeks in jail before State Attorney Willie Meggs decided to drop murder charges. Meggs said the facts of the investigation were not enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Harte killed his wife of 23 years.
Results from toxicology tests showed that at the time she drowned, Barbara Harte had high levels of cocaine in her system and had a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit. The state medical examiner could not conclusively prove her death was a homicide.
Meggs said his chief assistant attorney at the time, Robin Lotane, kept him in the dark about the case — a charge she disputed to her death in 2010. Meggs fired her as a result of her decision to go ahead with the case.
Hinkle said that Meggs’ decision to drop the charges against Harte does not establish there was no probable cause for his arrest.
“A good prosecutor sometimes looks at a case and says there is probable cause, but I can’t prove this beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hinkle said.
In this case, despite a few phrasing issues, the judge said the quality of the work in Mahoney’s probable-cause statement was high, and the investigator was not obligated to include information from some witnesses that Barbara Harte would fall when she was drunk or was once found “out of it” in her bathtub with her head under the water.
“This is not a sloppy piece of work. This is a good piece of work,” Hinkle said of the probable-cause statement. “It was simply the analysis of one unique set of facts.”
Hinkle said Harte’s attorney, David Moye, made arguments suited for a murder defense, but were not relevant to the question of whether TPD had probable cause to arrest Harte and “did not come close” to showing that the city was liable.
While delivering his order to dismiss the case, Hinkle conceded that it is possible Barbara Harte fell in the bathtub and hit her head twice before accidentally drowning, but added that he found the idea “far-fetched.”
“One obvious explanation is he abused her and it’s consistent with the information the officer had that he had abused her over a long period of time,” Hinkle said. “If I presided (over the criminal trial), this case would go to a jury.”