County Settles Case of Pro-Life Advocates Shackled, Strip Searched

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 27, 2010   |   7:40PM   |   Bel Air, MD

Harford County officials have settled a case involving a federal lawsuit attorneys filed on behalf of pro-life women who were shackled and strip searched after peacefully protesting abortion in Maryland.

The officers handcuffed and arrested 18 pro-life advocates for sharing a peaceful pro-life message along a Bel Air, Maryland public street in August 2008. Among those arrested were three young women who were later shackled, strip-searched, and detained overnight by other police.

Matt Paavola, the attorney for Defend Life, the pro-life group that sponsored the abortion outreach event, told the Baltimore Sun newspaper, “We have settled with the county revolving around the strip searches in the county detention center,” and called the settlement “very amicable and the county was very accommodating.”

He said county officials were apologetic in how the arrests were handled. He said Harford State’s Attorney Joe Cassilly was “dreadfully against what the sheriff’s office did and was very supportive of the free speech issue in question.”

The terms of the settlement were not disclosed, in part because, as County Attorney Robert McCord explained to the newspaper, the settlement agreement, which covers the county government and the sheriff’s office, has not been finalized.

“We have agreed in principle to the terms,” McCord said, “but there are a number individual plaintiffs and I’m still waiting for all of them to sign it.”

Also, while the county chose to settle, two other defendants named in the case have not participated in the agreement, the Town of Bel Air and the State of Maryland. If they do not agree to settle, they will proceed to a trial in the federal court for the U.S. District for Maryland

“As to the state troopers, it’s a different story,” Paavola said, according to the newspaper. “They were angered by the content of the signs — content discrimination which is, of course, against the First Amendment free speech rights.”

Although the state police tried to have the case dismissed, “the higher court said ‘no,’ which allows the litigation to move forward.”

Greg Shipley, spokesperson for Maryland State Police, according to the Sun, is not backing down.

“We remain a party in the litigation and we are preparing for trial and we continue to be represented by our attorney from the attorney general’s office and we are going through the legal process to prepare for trial.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit issued a ruling in October upholding a district court decision that denied the request of several Maryland state police officers to be immune from a lawsuit filed by Alliance Defense Fund attorneys representing pro-life advocates.

“Pro-life advocates shouldn’t be handcuffed and arrested for expressing their beliefs,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Blomberg. “The 4th Circuit’s decision is a positive development for our clients, who deserve justice after what they endured.”

In its order, the court found that arguments made by ADF attorneys that the troopers culpably enforced a violation of free speech rights protected by the First Amendment and that the arrests constituted retaliation based on the content of speech were sufficient to deny the troopers’ request for immunity for the time being.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland refused to dismiss the lawsuit in June 2009. U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett refused to grant motions by the defendants to dismiss the lawsuit.

In his opinion, Judge Bennett wrote, “The Amended Complaint sets forth sufficient facts to suggest that the Trooper Defendants, through their arrest of Plaintiffs, executed a policy of suppressing free speech that was based upon an unconstitutionally vague and overbroad ordinance.”

“This Court finds with respect to the alleged sexually invasive strip search at the Detention Center, Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim,” he added.

Bennett also found insufficient reason to dismiss the women’s unlawful seizure claims.

In August 2008, the pro-life people were arrested without warning by Harford County State Troopers during their multi-city protest featuring abortions signs. At least a dozen police officers arrived in more than seven marked vehicles.

They had started their peaceful pro-life event along a public road in Harford County but relocated to the town of Bel Air after being told by officers to leave the county for not having a county permit to engage in free speech activities. The officers then arrested them in Bel Air without explanation.

Once in custody, three young women among the group arrested–two of whom were teenagers–were subjected to two rounds of strip searches. Only after the strip searches and a night spent in jail were they told why they were arrested.

The first search took place in the police station parking lot in front of other males. A female officer pulled out the young ladies’ shirt collars to inspect their breasts before reaching down their pants to feel around their waistlines.

The Harford County Detention Center administered the second strip search after the pro-life participants were transferred there. A female officer took the women one by one into a bathroom with a partially open door and ordered them to lift up their shirts and brassieres. Officials cast the pro-life participants in leg irons, denied them permission to call parents until after midnight.

A week after their release, the state dropped the charges ultimately filed against them: loitering, disorderly conduct, and failure to obey a lawful order. None of the participants were ever charged with any sort of permit violation.

Alliance Defense Fund and allied attorneys filed a lawsuit against Harford County, the town of Bel Air, and seven police officials on behalf of the young women.

“The state shouldn’t persecute Christians for expressing their beliefs on important social issues, nor deny them their constitutional rights,” ADF senior counsel Kevin Theriot told previously. “This incident paints an ugly picture of the state of religious freedom and free speech in America today.”

ADF-allied attorney Daniel Cox is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit, Swagler v. Harford County.