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Anti-abortion protesters to continue suit against Bel Air, state troopers

Harford County has agreed to clarify its policy for handling demonstrators as part of a settlement reached with eight anti-abortion demonstrators who were arrested as they held graphic posters along Route 24 in August 2008.

Unlike the young women who participated in Defend Life Inc.’s roadside campaign two and a half years ago, who were subjected to strip searches, future protesters only will be patted down or frisked unless there is reason to believe they may be armed or have contraband, according to Christopher A. Ferrara, chief counsel for New Jersey-based American Catholic Lawyers Association Inc., which represents six of the individual plaintiffs.

“If First Amendment demonstrators are ever arrested again in Harford County, they can’t be invasively searched like some of us were,” said Jack Ames, director of Defend Life.

The demonstrators, who have displayed large pictures of aborted fetuses in public places around Maryland as part of their annual week-long tour, also will receive a money settlement from the county, which processed the plaintiffs at its jail.

Although the money is to come from the county, Ferrara said the amount is confidential.

Harford County Attorney Robert S. McCord did not return several calls for comment on Monday.

While Ferrara said he was pleased with the settlement, the litigation continues against the Maryland State Police troopers and Town of Bel Air police officers who participated in the arrest.

“It’s quite clear that the police responded because the passing motorists found the signs offensive,” Ferrara said of the so-called heckler’s veto. “That’s not constitutional.”

Assistant Attorney General Phillip M. Pickus represents the state police defendants in the consolidated case.

“We are continuing to defend the case and litigate it,” Pickus said.

Bel Air Police Chief Leo Matrangola referred questions about the case to John F. Breads Jr., the attorney who represents the department through the Local Government Insurance Trust. Breads did not return a message Monday.

Attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian nonprofit based in Arizona that represents the other two plaintiffs, declined to comment on the partial settlement.

Last May, a federal judge refused to throw out the plaintiffs’ claims, saying more facts needed to come out.

The Maryland State Police and a number of troopers, as well as the Town of Bel Air and several police officers, claimed they should have immunity from the protesters’ suit on a number of grounds.

“At the current juncture, this Court faces two conflicting stories concerning what occurred at the time of the arrest on August 1, 2008…,” U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett wrote then. “Plaintiffs deserve an opportunity to engage in discovery before a full consideration of these claims is made at the summary judgment stage.”

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the defendants’ appeals, discovery proceeded and now the parties have filed new motions for summary judgment.

The plaintiffs — Ames, Laura Beeson, Nathan Cain, Patrick Mooney, Albert Stecklein, Timothy Sullivan, Jessica Ward, Angela Swagler and Elizabeth Walsh — have alleged several instances of mistreatment during and following their arrest on Aug. 1, 2008, at the state police barracks and the Harford County Detention Center. All charges against them were nolle prossed less than two weeks later.

Ames, an engineer, said police had the “chutzpah” to monitor the demonstrators last July as well.

He said Harford County was “man enough to recognize that they had done something egregious. … We commend them for that, while the Maryland State Police and the Town of Bel Air are still dragging their feet.”

Defend Life will return to Bel Air on July 29, he said.

One comment

  1. Anti-abortion protesters are arrested but the ignorant, disgusting protesters at the funeral of a US serviceman were not? And the anti-abortion protestors are going to get a settlement but the father of the fallen serviceman may have to pay legal fees?