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State troopers violated Harford protesters' free speech rights, federal judge says

A federal judge has ruled that several Maryland State Police troopers violated anti-abortion protesters' right to free speech when they asked the protesters to leave Harford County during a 2008 demonstration.

The ruling issued July 12 in the U.S. District Court of Maryland concluded that troopers acted unconstitutionally by arresting 18 members of the Defend Life organization for allegedly disrupting traffic along Route 24 in Abingdon.

Defendants named in the suit against Maryland State Police included superintendent Col. Terrence Sheridan (who recently announced he will retire at the end of this month), Charles Neighoff, Dona Bohlen, Walter Rasinski, Christopher Bradley, Charles Mohr, Ernest Meads, and Mitchell Nuzzo.

The agency contended it was inundated with complaints about the graphic images of aborted fetuses the demonstrators were holding as they stood along the side of the busy highway.

U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett wrote in his opinion that the protesters' right of free speech "was unquestionably restricted," and although troopers cited traffic concerns, they did not collect evidence or take pictures of any traffic backup.

The judge therefore decided that the order to disperse was made solely on the basis of the content of the pictures, according to the opinion.

Bennett, however, also ruled against protesters' claims that the troopers used an unconstitutional "gender-specific" search or excessive force in making the arrests.

Bennett noted that another law enforcement agency, the Harford County Sheriff's Office, refused to help the state police in making the arrests, "something it rarely does," he wrote.

Also, while the troopers claimed to act according to a county permit ordinance, none of them bothered to read or understand the ordinance before suppressing the protesters' speech and making the arrests, Bennett wrote.

As a result of the decision, the protesters are entitled to press for damages in a separate proceeding. A case administrator for the court said Monday there is no record yet of any such claim being filed.

The state police, meanwhile, filed an appeal with the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on July 20.

Steve Ruckman, a spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General's Office, said Tuesday his office is reviewing the judge's decision.

Elena Russo, spokeswoman for Maryland State Police, wrote in a July 15 statement that troopers responded to the scene on the day of the protest only after receiving calls from motorists who complained of individuals walking through and disrupting traffic at the intersection. The protest took place in the vicinity of the intersection of Routes 24 and 924.

"Troopers acted in the interest of public safety and upon the advice from the county's state's attorney's office," Russo wrote.

Bennett's decision makes the Maryland State Police the only party found liable in the protest lawsuit, which also was brought against the Harford County Sheriff's Office and the Bel Air Police Department.

Earlier this month, the Bel Air Police Department, which also arrived at the scene but made no arrests, was cleared of allegations that several officers participated in the arrests.

The Harford County government settled with Defend Life last year and was removed from the lawsuit. The county made an undisclosed monetary payment to the group.

Harford County Attorney Rob McCord said terms of the county's settlement will still not be made public because of the pending appeal by Maryland State Police and the potential for the additional trial on damages.

McCord had said last year he would be willing to make the county's settlement terms public once all the litigation is concluded.

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