Pro-life group talks about settlement with state police

- Members of the pro-life group Defend Life proclaimed their victory Monday against Maryland State Police and vowed to move on from the 2008 arrests of 18 of their members for holding graphic abortion images as they marched and protested along a busy highway in Bel Air.

The state police last month agreed to settle a federal suit filed on behalf of the protesters. The settlement includes a $385,000 payment to the group and a requirement to provide training in constitutional law for state troopers, Defend Life founder Jack Ames said at a press conference in front of state police headquarters.

Ames said most of the state's settlement payment went to female members of Defend Life who were subjected to invasive strip-searches by police. They comprised about half of the 18 who were arrested while holding explicit images of aborted fetuses along Bel Air's Route 24.

A training program for troopers will specifically focus on the First and Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, and will go into effect 120 days after the settlement, Ames said.

Defend Life will offer its services to Maryland State Police to aid with that training, he said.

Although the federal judge who heard the lawsuit had ruled against protesters' claims that the troopers used an unconstitutional "gender-specific" search or excessive force, Defend Life members continue to insist that alleged sexist behavior at the police training academy contributed to aggressive and demeaning arrest tactics.

The Maryland State Police continues to reject the group's claims, especially those related to sexism in training or strip-searches during the arrests.

Spokesman Greg Shipley said troopers consulted with the state's attorney's office in regard to the arrests that day.

"Our troopers that day acted in good faith. They responded to numerous complaints of traffic at these intersections and [that] these signs were very disturbing," Shipley said Monday late Monday afternoon. 

"The Maryland State Police conducted no strip-searches," he said. "Unless there is some specific issue or need, we do not, on a routine arrest, conduct strip-searches."

Shipley said troopers will do pat-downs as required.

"We will comply with the settlement agreement and the training that is mandated in that has already begun, and we will work to uphold the rights of all we encounter," he said. "Obviously this is an important topic… Our troopers are committed to upholding the constitutional and civil rights of everyone."

He denied accusations of sexism or mistreatment during the arrests.

"I would have to defend our troopers. There was no sexist language used with these individuals and I would argue they were treated, when they were in our custody, with respect," he said.

Harford settled previously

The federal lawsuit filed on behalf of Defend Life had alleged Defend Life's members' constitutional rights were violated when police broke up the protest and arrested 16 adults and two juveniles.

In addition to state police, defendants in the lawsuit originally included the Harford County Sheriff's Office and the Town of Bel Air Police Department.

The county sheriff's office settled with the group in 2010, while the judge who heard the suit dismissed the complaint against the Bel Air police last year. The state had fought on, however.

A federal judge ruled in July 2011 that troopers had acted unconstitutionally, as the protesters' right of free speech "was unquestionably restricted," while troopers did not have any evidence of any traffic problems caused by the protest, a reason police gave for breaking up the protest in August 2008.

Maryland State Police filed an appeal with the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, but the state then settled, and the Maryland Board of Public Works approved the $385,000 payment to Defend Life without comment on March 7.

Harford County has refused to make public the amount it paid to Defend Life. The county's chief legal counsel said in 2010 he would make that information public only after the lawsuit had been resolved for all parties involved.

Thanks sheriff, state's attorney

At the press conference Monday, Defend Life's Ames individually thanked a number of people who helped Defend Life members while they were detained.

They included Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane, who Ames said had ordered his police wagons to turn around, and to Harford State's Attorney Joe Cassilly, who dropped charges against the protesters that included loitering, disorderly conduct and failure to obey a lawful order.

Ames also thanked an anonymous trooper who Ames said had walked by the room where protesters were incarcerated in cramped conditions.

"[He] said, 'Don't worry, all these charges will be dropped,'" Ames said. "We needed to hear that at the time."

"The good news is the First Amendment still stands here in Maryland," Ames added, saying the group is thankful for the settlement and thankful to God and all those who supported Defend Life's case.

Forgives troopers

Angela Swagler, a college student from Erie, Pa., who attended the press conference, said she wanted the state troopers to know she forgives them.

She said she had just graduated from high school when she was arrested.

"I knew in my heart that what I was doing was right and I was protected by the First Amendment," Swagler said. "It was a traumatic experience in its own right, and I never want anyone, women in particular, to experience the horrors I did of being shackled, imprisoned and getting strip-searched twice."

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris was supposed to be at the press conference but instead passed on comments that he thanked Defend Life for standing up for their rights.

"A disturbing trend we are all witnessing today is to stifle opinions that are politically incorrect," Harris, an abortion foe who represents the Bel Air area in Congress, said in a letter read by Ames.

Tom Brejcha, a lawyer with the pro-life Thomas More Society who represented the plaintiffs, said the case sets a precedent.

He said it means neither state police nor any other officer will uphold laws restricting peaceful picketing.

"The content of speech is not a legal basis for regulating it, unless it is obscene, incitement to unlawful action or [other] very limited cases," Brejcha said. "The duty of the officer is to protect the speaker… This is a major step not only in Maryland but nationally."

The practice of showing graphic fetal images "should be used sparingly," however, Brejcha added.

"We don't recommend that tactic be used all the time," he said, although he added: "That tactic must be protected."

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