Anti-abortion protesters to get settlement in Harford arrests

The Maryland State Police have agreed to pay a $385,000 settlement to nine anti-abortion protesters arrested by Maryland State Troopers four years ago in Harford County.

The 18 protesters, two of whom were minors, aged 14 and 17, at the time, were arrested and processed. While the minors were released, the others spent a night in the Harford County Detention Center.

The state's Board of Public Works approved the payment Wednesday without discussion.

The settlement means "the Maryland State Police cannot restrict speech, including speech employing images of aborted human babies, based on reactions of viewers or motorists to that speech," said Jack Ames, director of Defend Life, a Baltimore-based group.

Members of the Alliance Defense Fund, a group founded 14 years ago with the stated mission of safeguarding Christian beliefs, sued on behalf of Defend Life, whose members were arrested while protesting in and around the town of Bel Air in August 2008.

The protesters, who were holding up graphic images to passing motorists, claimed they were mistreated by the police and filed suit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore against Harford County, the town of Bel Air and seven local and state police agencies.

The suit claimed that at least 12 police officers handcuffed 18 demonstrators and would not tell them a reason for their arrests. Three young women were twice subjected to strip searches, the suit alleged, once at the Bel Air police station and again at the Harford County Detention Center. The women, who were not released until the next day, were denied permission to call relatives or contact attorneys, the suit said.

Police said motorists complained about the graphic nature of the protesters' posters. Officers ordered the demonstrators to leave the county and arrested them when they failed to obey, police said.

The state dropped charges, which included loitering, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order, soon after the arrests.

A federal judge dismissed the town of Bel Air from the suit and ruled last year that police violated the demonstrators' constitutional right to free speech. The judge also upheld the group's claim that the arrests violated due process. The Office of the Attorney General has determined that the officers, who were assisted by the Bel Air Town Police, were neither grossly negligent nor malicious in the performance of their duties.

"The Maryland state troopers who responded to the scene that day did so in response to numerous calls from motorists who complained of individuals disrupting traffic at the intersection," said Greg Shipley, MSP spokesman. "The troopers acted in good faith, in the interest of public safety, and in accordance with advice from the county state's attorney's office."

Harford County settled with the demonstrators in December 2010 but will not release details until all aspects of the case are concluded, officials said.

A previous version of this story should have clarified that the Alliance Defense Fund represented Defend Life in the suit. It also gave an incorrect age for one of the teens arrested and a wrong number of plaintiffs.

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