BALTIMORE, January 17, 2011 ( – Maryland police and state troopers have lost their appeal to get immunity from a lawsuit filed against them by pro-life protesters they arrested and strip-searched in Bel Air, Maryland, according to a federal appeals court.

The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Maryland in its jurisdiction, rejected an appeal by Bel Air police officers and Maryland state troopers who claimed they were acting in good faith when they arrested pro-life demonstrators with the Defend Life “Face the Truth Tour.”

Defend Life is a Maryland-based pro-life group, which conducts an annual event that includes showing graphic pictures of abortion along stretches of public highway in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and nearby states over a couple of weeks. The group’s literature explains that while abortion is the most common surgery in the United States, most Americans have no idea what abortion does to its unborn victims. They say that while not all pro-life advocates agree, they believe opting for the graphic signs in their protests helps to “save lives, convert minds and hearts, and break through the denial that allows abortion to continue in this country.”

The appeals court granted the motion to dismiss the officers’ appeal, which was filed by Patrick Gillen, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a public interest firm that is representing the lawsuit filed by the pro-life group and director Jack Ames, which said they were victimized by police abuse of authority. Those alleged abuses include not only the violations of First Amendment rights, but also the police ordering humiliating strip searches of several young women in the group.

On Friday, August 1, 2008 police from the town of Bel Air and Maryland state troopers arrested the pro-life demonstrators at their last stop, but only much later after the arrests were they charged with loitering, failure to obey a lawful order, and disorderly conduct. The charges were never prosecuted.

However, the whole group was held in jail overnight, and police insisted on strip-searching the college-aged women in the group.

Besides the humiliation of strip-searching endured by the women, attorneys with the Thomas More Society also presented to the court evidence that officers acted in bad faith and held a deep prejudice against the plaintiffs. Attorneys told the federal court that the 911 tapes revealed officers were responding to a complaint based on the content of the protest, and that according to one police recording, an officer is heard saying “they can sit in a cell for an hour … or three or four and rot.”

The group then filed a lawsuit against Harford County, the Superintendent of the Maryland State Police, several state police troopers, the Town of Bel Air, and others. Only Harford County has settled, the terms of the settlement being undisclosed.

A federal judge ruled earlier in May against the officers, saying their actions belied claims that they were merely doing their duty. The appeals court ruling reaffirms the lower court’s finding.

“This dismissal of the defendants’ last groundless appeal paves the way for our continuing to press this case until justice is done, finally and completely,” said TMS chief counsel Tom Brejcha.

The next step in the lawsuit will be the deposition of Ames on January 26, 2011, and then the case is expected to proceed to the jury trial phase.

Other attorneys involved with the case include the Alliance Defense Fund, Chris Ferrara of American Catholic Lawyers Association, and Matt Paavola, of Baltimore, former president of Maryland’s Christian Legal Society.