Members of the national anti-abortion group Defend Life rallied Monday morning in Pikesville to mark a $385,000 settlement award it received from the State of Maryland as result of a federal lawsuit.
The state settled after the group filed a lawsuit stating that in 2008, Maryland State Police in Harford County illegally arrested 18 anti-abortion protesters from the group, violating their First Amendment rights.
"The mass arrest, handcuffing, prolonged detention, jailing, and needless, invasive strip searches of fully peaceable, non-violent pro-life demonstrators by state police was an outrageous suppression of citizens’ fundamental First and Fourth Amendment rights in a traditional public forum," a news release from the group stated.
"We are very grateful for this settlement, thankful to Almighty God," Jack Ames, director of Defend Life, said during the news conference.
The lawsuit stems from arrests made during an August 2008 protest that Defend Life held on Route 24 in Bel Air, Defend Life officials said.
During that protest, some motorists had called in complaints to authorities about what they saw, including prostesters' signs that showed aborted fetuses, the group and police have said.
State Police responded, consulted the Harford County State's Attorney's Office and arrested 18 protesters, said Greg Shipley, spokesman for Maryland State Police.
State Police did not send a representative to the news conference Monday morning in Pikesville. But Monday afternoon, Shipley told Pikesville Patch that in 2008, protestors were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, failure to obey a lawful order, and willfully obstructing the free flow of traffic.
Those charges against members of the group were later dropped, "according to the decision of the Harford County State's Attorney," Shipley said.
The $385,000 settlement was approved March 7, according to the group's news release. That money will pay the group's legal expenses and the remaining will be split among 10 of those arrested, it stated.
Shipley said Maryland State Police has learned from that "challenging situation," and is taking certain measure as a result of that case. For example, police are are undergoing First Amendment rights training, and will continue to do so, he said.
Still, the police administration stands behind its troopers.
"We believe our troopers acted in good faith with a challenging situation," Shipley said. "They were confronted with numerous phone calls that came in from motorists, some who were very upset, whose children were very upset from what was going on."
He said the troopers responded to the scene, consulted the Harford County State's Attorney's office and based on that advice, "took the action they thought appropriate at the time to deal with the situation."
"Our troopers work very hard each day to uphold the rights of the citizens they encounter and we will continue to do that," Shipley said.
According to a news release from Defend Life, under the terms of the settlement, state police cannot:
- Issue countywide dispersal orders against peaceful speakers.
- Illegally arrest speakers who are exercising their constitutionally protected free speech and assembly rights.
And state police must:
- Provide acceptable reasons for asking any speakers to move.
- Provide speakers with the opportunity to move before threatening anyone with arrest.
- Not censor constitutionally protected messages and images on signs.
- Participate in training on rights protected by the First and Fourth amendments to the U.S. Constitution
Among the speakers Monday were Thomas Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society in Chicago, the attorney who represented 10 of the people arrested.
During the news conference Monday, a few members of Defend Life held signs, allegedly showing photos of aborted fetuses, for passersby along Reisterstown Road.
The group's mission is to make abortion illegal as well as to make it unthinkable, Ames said.
According to a Baltimore Sun report, defendants in the federal lawsuit originally included the Harford County Sheriff's Office and the Town of Bel Air Police Department, as well as the Maryland State Police.
"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," the report states.