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State to pay pro-life picketers $385K

The Maryland Board of Public Works is set to vote to approve a $385,000 a settlement in a federal lawsuit against the Maryland State Police by anti-abortion protesters arrested in 2008.

The protesters filed the lawsuit against the state police and others after they were arrested, jailed and subjected to strip searches following a demonstration involving graphic signs of aborted fetuses near the intersection of Routes 24 and 924 in Bel Air.

In its recommendation to approve the settlement, the Office of the Attorney General did not say why the case was being settled. Assistant Attorney General Phillip M. Pickus, who represents the state police defendants, wrote that the office had determined the troopers named in the lawsuit were not negligent or malicious in their actions.

Pickus did not return calls for comment Monday. The Board of Public Works is scheduled to vote on the settlement at its regular meeting Wednesday.

Kevin Theriot, who represented three of the women arrested by police, said his clients approved of the settlement and of the changes it had brought about in terms of police response to peaceful demonstrations.

“We think this is a fair settlement,” said Theriot, who is senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian nonprofit based in Arizona. “I think this does two things — it protects the rights of our clients and it provides law enforcement officers with the information they need to enforce these laws.”

The plaintiffs — Defend Life founder Jack Ames, Laura Beeson, Nathan Cain, Patrick Mooney, Albert Stecklein, Timothy Sullivan, Jessica Ward, Angela Swagler and Elizabeth Walsh — were arrested Aug. 1, 2008, during a rush-hour anti-abortion protest organized by Baltimore-based Defend Life.

State troopers, responding to complaints from motorists, told the demonstrators they needed a permit to protest. The demonstrators moved several miles farther down Route 24 and resumed picketing at Marketplace Drive, where the troopers arrested them.

The demonstrators alleged several instances of mistreatment during and following their arrest at the state police barracks and the Harford County Detention Center.

All charges against them were nolle prossed less than two weeks later. They argued that the actions of the police violated their constitutional rights to free speech and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Bel Air police officers were dismissed from the lawsuit in July 2011 by U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett, who ruled they were merely acting as backup for state troopers and did not participate in the alleged constitutional-rights violations.

The settlement, if approved, would leave only the Town of Bel Air as a defendant. Harford County reached an undisclosed settlement in March 2011.

John F. Breads Jr., the attorney who represents the town through the Local Government Insurance Trust, did not return a message Monday.