Pro-Life Girls Shackled, Strip Searched Now Settle Lawsuit

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 7, 2011   |   12:52PM   |   Bel Air, MD

The pro-life advocates, including college-aged girls, who were shacked and strip searched after peacefully protesting abortion in Maryland in 2008, have settled the lawsuit they filed against a Maryland county.

Maryland state troopers 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.

In January, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected an appeal taken by defendant police officers in a suit brought by Defend Life, a Maryland pro-life group that sponsored the event featuring pro-life signs held along a busy street. The court granted a motion to dismiss the appeal filed by Thomas More Society’s special counsel.

Defend Life filed the lawsuit last year complaining that Maryland State Police, assisted by Harford County and Bel Air city officials, committed lawless arrests and jailing of protesters.

Now, attorneys for the pro-life group are holding a press conference today to announce a settlement with Harford County, Maryland.

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit last year, complaining that Maryland State Police, assisted by Harford County and Bel Air city officials, committed lawless arrests and jailing of protesters, including outrageous “strip searches” of several college girls who had joined other pro-lifers in peaceably demonstrating against abortion on the public right of way.

“This settlement is important for both the pro-life movement and the First Amendment rights of political speakers in general,” said Christopher Ferrara, president of American Catholic Lawyers Association, which is representing six plaintiffs in the action.

The settlement with Harford County includes the adoption of a new county policy regulating the handling of peaceful protesters along with a confidential settlement with each plaintiff.

“Harford County has rectified a terrible wrong, and we only hope the Maryland State Troopers and Bel Air Police who participated in this disgraceful roundup of peaceful pro-life advocates, including sobbing youngsters, will follow Hartford County’s lead,” Ferrara told today.

The American Catholic Lawyer’s Association along with special counsel from the Thomas More Society are aggressively continuing forward with its lawsuit against the Maryland State Police and the town of Bel Air.

Motions to dismiss the entire lawsuit filed by the Town of Bel Air, Bel Air police officers, the Maryland State Police Superintendent and state police troopers were denied in May of 2010. Some of those defendants filed an immediate appeal, arguing that police acted in good faith and were therefore immune from suit.

The appeals court dismissed the appeal on the grounds that material questions of fact were presented as to whether the police defendants acted in good faith. Indeed, plaintiffs already adduced compelling evidence of bad faith, including legally baseless arrests followed by failure to prosecute belated criminal charges, needless strip searches of fully peaceable, nonviolent demonstrators, and 911 tapes and police recordings. The recordings showed how police enforced a “heckler’s veto” (acting on phone calls objecting to the content of protest signs) in making the arrests, and showing deep police bias — with officers commenting “…they can sit in a cell for an hour … or three or four and rot.”

“We are vigorously opposing motions for summary judgment by both the Troopers and Bel Air police and are responding with motions for summary judgment of our own,” Ferrara said.  “The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Snyder v. Phelps should send a message to the remaining defendants: if people do not like what they see on pro-life signs, that is not police business, but a matter of First Amendment liberty. The Supreme Court has made clear, people who do not like a particular message should look the other way.”

“If people cannot ‘Face the Truth’ about the horror of abortion, then they too should look the other way… if they can. Calling 911 is not the way to engage in debate in this country. The taxpayers are paying for law enforcement, not censorship of unpopular messages,” he added.

The county initially announced the settlement in December but not all of the plaintiffs in the case signed the settlement. Today’s announcements indicates that has happened.

During the initial event, 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.