BEL AIR, MARYLAND, March 8, 2012, (LifeSiteNews.com) – The state of Maryland is paying $385,000 to a pro-life group and training state police officers about the Constitution as part of a settlement after violating the pro-life protesters’ First and Fourth Amendment rights in 2008.
In August 2008, 18 members of Defend Life peacefully demonstrated along a roadway as part of their “Face the Truth” campaign, when 12 Maryland State Police officers handcuffed and arrested them, and transported them to the Hartford County Detention Center in Bel Air, Maryland. Some members of the group – which included three women and two minors, aged 14 and 17– were put into leg shackles, subjected to two strip searches, denied the right to make phone calls, and denied contact with attorneys Steve Peroutka and Scott Whiteman.
The following month, nine members filed a federal lawsuit before the U.S. District of Maryland, represented by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, the Thomas More Society of Chicago, and the American Catholic Lawyers Association.
The Maryland Board of Public Works voted Wednesday to settle their lawsuit. In addition to the monetary award, state troopers must implement a review of the Constitution within 120 days of the settlement’s approval.
Jack Ames, director and founder of Defend Life, said in a statement e-mailed to LifeSiteNews.com, “Thanks be to God! The good news is that the First Amendment still lives in Maryland. Our Founding Fathers who so wisely enshrined the right of free speech into our Constitution would be extremely pleased.”
“We’re glad to hear this news, which is certainly a vindication of the position we took in the federal lawsuit, which we filed and prosecuted over the last three-and-a-half years, along with the Alliance Defense Fund and America Catholic Lawyers Association,” attorney Tom Brejcha, president of the Thomas More Society in Chicago, told LifeSiteNews.com.
“That amount bespeaks the seriousness of the conduct of the Maryland State Police,” he said. “The settlement includes a mandate for training on First Amendment rights, and we trust there will be no recurrence in the future of this misconduct.”
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Defend Life had conducted its protests, which use graphic images of aborted children, in the state since 2001 without incident. However, Ames told LifeSiteNews.com he later learned “plain-clothes Maryland State Police had conducted secret surveillance of the 2007 Defend Life Face the Truth Tour in Westminster, Maryland.” The following year, state troopers asked the group to disperse and leave the area before arresting the protesters at the intersection of Routes 24 and 924, just north of I-95.
“They had a hard time figuring out what to charge them with, because frankly they didn’t violate any criminal laws, so they made up a couple,” Brejcha told LifeSiteNews. “They said they didn’t have a permit to conduct the demonstration, and there was no such permit requirement in force.” Ultimately, police charged them with loitering, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order.
All charges against the pro-lifers were dismissed at the first trial.
The real reason for the arrest, Brejcha said, was something else entirely.
As part of a Freedom of Information Act request, he said, “we netted a harvest of police phone and radio call transcripts, which showed the reason for the arrests were complaints from the public, members of whom were upset about the content of the signs.” He said that represents a classic case of “a heckler’s veto,” a violation of the First Amendment. “The whole purpose of the First Amendment is to allow folks to speak openly and freely with political messages,” he said.
Prejudice and hostility against pro-lifers may also play a role, he said.
“We also had a really obnoxious, repugnant quotation on the radio by a notorious Sgt. [Dona] Bohlen, a lady who said of the protesters after their arrest, ‘they can sit in a cell for an hour… or three or four and rot.’ So there was a lot of hard feelings and animus against the pro-life position on the part of many of these arresting officers, including at the supervisory level.”
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Last July, Judge Richard Bennett ruled, “a reasonable police officer faced with the facts confronted by the Defendants would have known that, in ordering the demonstrators to leave Harford County, he would violate the Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. Moreover, arresting the Plaintiffs for exercising those rights was a violation of the Plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment rights.”
“This settlement, reached during an appeal by the Troopers to the Fourth Circuit, follows a ruling by the lower court that our clients’ rights were violated as a matter of law and that the trial would be to determine damages only,” said Christopher A. Ferrara, president and chief counsel of ACLA, in a statement e-mailed to LifeSiteNews.com. ACLA represented seven of the arrestees.
Brejcha told LifeSiteNews the case took nearly four years to conclude because it was “vigorously defended by the municipalities and the state police. It took a good bit of persistence and efforts on the part of the lawyers who were working in the case.”
Hartford County settled with the group last year.
Brejcha said his group and others are filing new lawsuits to protect the rights of pro-life protesters nationwide. The Thomas More Society is currently overseeing two cases of police overreach in Delaware and Massachusetts.
“There are a lot of police officers whose good, hard efforts and support of people’s rights we applaud, but there are these bad apples, and one by one we’ve got to go after them and make sure that our rights are respected everywhere,” Brejacha said.
Ames said he was pleased with this settlement. “This historic decision should embolden Pro-Life activists all across America to continue to take to the streets, exposing the reality of pre-born child killing until the day comes that abortion is not only illegal in American, but also unthinkable!”