“I’m A Police Officer And I Know The Law.” Uh…No, You Don’t.

Before we begin, we want to say that being in law enforcement is a difficult job. We mean that sincerely.

That being said, being a police officer doesn’t give one the right to act like an ignorant bully on steroids.

On August 1, 2008, Maryland State Troopers, members of the Harford County Sheriff’s office as well as other law enforcement agencies arrested a group of anti-abortion protestors from a pro-life, pro-family, Roman Catholic organization called Defend Life for…. well, what they were arrested for is part of the story.

According to the police, the protestors and a judge’s decision in the case, the protestors had set up on a

…grassy shoulder along Route 24, near the intersection of Routes 24 and 924 in Harford County. (Id. ¶ 22.) The demonstrators stood approximately 20 to 40 feet apart from each other and they held signs of varying sizes, between 4 and 5 feet in height and 2 and 3 feet in width that contained pictures and words that conveyed an anti-abortion message.

After receiving calls from motorists complaining that the signs and images the protestors were displaying were “offensive” and “upsetting,” Maryland State Troopers arrived and told the protestors they needed a permit.

After talking with the State Trooper, the protestors moved 4 miles “up the road,” to a place where they believed they were legally allowed to protest.

A few minutes later, the State Police, Harford County Police, and police from the City of Bel Air showed up and started to make arrests. Despite asking many and multiple times as to the reason they were being arrested, the law enforcement officers never told them, but kept the protestors along side of the road for 30 minutes.

During this time, the protestors alleged they were “body searched,” including having female officers look down the shirts of the female protestors, and reaching in the protestors pants to search below the waistline. All of these searches allegedly happened along the side of the road.

The protestors were then taken to a holding cell where they were held without charges for at least 6 hours. The protestors were then moved to a detention center where the females were strip searched by a female officer in a bathroom. The plaintiffs contend the bathroom door was kept open. Still, at this time, no charges had been filed.

Between the hours of 2:30 AM and 9:00 AM, the protestors were interviewed by the Harford County Commissioner, who told them of the charges. All of the protestors were released by 11:00 AM.

The short story of this is that a group of 18 people were arrested and held by the police without charges for over 7 hours. Even worse, they were arrested for a legal activity.

How legal?

During the first encounter with the police, State Trooper Christopher Bradley told the protestors they needed a permit to protest. Despite the fact that the police wrote in their report the protestors were being arrested for failing to have a permit, they were not charged with that offense. Why? Because no such requirement exists. A permit is needed for a “mass gathering of people,” but not for a small group of 18 or so.

The protestors were charged with:

loitering, Harford County Code, § 193-4(B)(1), disorderly conduct, MD Code Ann., Crim. Law Art., § 10-201(c)(2), and failure to obey a lawful order, MD Code Ann., Crim. Law Art., § 10-201(c)(3).

Here is the Harford County law concerning loitering:

193-4. Loitering.

A. Definitions. For the purposes of this section, the following words and phrases shall have the meanings respectively ascribed to them by this subsection:

Remaining idle in essentially one (1) location, including the concept of spending time idly, being dilatory, lingering, staying, sauntering, delaying and standing around, including the colloquial expression “hanging around.”

Any place to which the general public has access and a right to resort for business, entertainment or other lawful purpose, but not necessarily a place devoted solely to the uses of the public. “Public place” shall also include the front or immediate area of any store, shop, restaurant, tavern or other place of business and public grounds, areas or parks.

B. Prohibited conduct. It shall be unlawful for any person to loiter, loaf, wander, stand or remain idle, either alone or in consort with others, in a public place in such manner so as to:

(1) Obstruct any public street, public highway, public sidewalk or any other public place or building by hindering or impeding or tending to hinder or impede the free and uninterrupted passage of vehicles, traffic or pedestrians.

(2) Commit, in or upon any public street, public highway, public sidewalk or any other public place or building, any act or thing which is an obstruction or interference to the free and uninterrupted use of property or with any business lawfully conducted by anyone in or upon or facing or fronting on any such public street, public highway, public sidewalk or any other public place or building, all of which prevent the free and uninterrupted ingress, egress and regress therein, thereon and thereto.

C. Violations and penalties. When any person causes or commits any of the conditions enumerated in Subsection B of this section, a police officer or any law enforcement officer shall order that person to stop causing or committing such conditions and to move on or disperse. Any such person who fails or refuses to obey such orders shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000.) or imprisonment for not more than six (6) months, or both.

D. Picketing and lawful assembly. Nothing herein shall be construed to prohibit orderly and legal picketing or other lawful assembly. (emphasis ours)

We’ve highlighted the section with which the group was charged. In that the group wasn’t blocking or hindering anyone or anything, this charge fails immediately. But there is something else. The last line of the law says that “loitering” cannot be charged during a lawful assembly or legal picketing, which is exactly what the group was doing.

How stupid is it to charge a group with something that is knowingly allowed for by the law?

(And while that sounds like a rhetorical question, as we will show later, it is more than stupid.)

Disorderly conduct” under Maryland law is:

(2) A person may not willfully act in a disorderly manner that disturbs the public peace.

Let’s be clear here: standing by the side of the road holding up placards, signs and pictures does not disturb the “public peace.” The protestors were not shouting. They were not playing loud music. They had no bullhorns or sound amplification system of any kind. Under those circumstances, it is impossible to “disturb the peace.”

The state of Maryland then doubled down on stupid and charged the group with “failing to obey a lawful order.”

(3) A person may not willfully fail to obey a reasonable and lawful order that a law enforcement officer makes to prevent a disturbance to the public peace.

What lawful order did the protestors disobey?

The “order” to stop “disturbing the peace” which they were not doing in the first place.

As we said, the charges had nothing to do with the original complaint of failing to have a permit. It appears the County Commissioner realized that was a bogus charge, so he tried to make something up that would fit. In doing so, he made up a bunch of charges that were so off the mark, the State’s Attorney dismissed the charges against all of the protestors when their cases went to court on August 12, 2008. This was not a judge saying “these charges don’t fit.” This was the State of Maryland saying so.

After the State dropped the charges, Defend Life decided their rights had been violated and sued:

In their Amended Complaint (Paper No. 32), Plaintiffs assert seven claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging constitutional violations of their First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights, as well as two common law claims for false arrest and false imprisonment and assault and battery.

During discovery for the lawsuit, Defend Life obtained copies of the police radio communications.

The communications are highly damning.

As Maryland State Police disbanded an anti-abortion rally along a crowded road near the center of Bel Air, a sergeant told a colleague that the 18 arrested protesters could “sit in a cell for an hour … and two or three or four and rot.”

The same trooper, during another conversation from the Bel Air barracks, said of the group holding signs depicting gruesome images of aborted fetuses, “I am about ready to tell them to get the hell out of this county.”

But Sgt. Dona S. Bohlen, who retired last year, said a moment later, “I want to do it properly.”

Police were also upset that the group ignored orders to “leave the county” and instead moved the protest four miles up the road, into Bel Air.

“When a police officer tells them ‘leave the county,’ they are not kidding,” Bohlen told a colleague in a recorded conversation. “It’s not a joke, and they need to understand that is not acceptable behavior.”

We agree that it is not a joke. It is not a joke when people are arrested for legally exercising their Constitutional rights. The police weren’t concerned with the rights of the Defend Life members. They were more concerned with the number of calls they were receiving about the signs and images the group was displaying:

The tapes show that troopers were primarily concerned about the graphic images on the signs. Authorities struggled to find an applicable law that would allow police to disband or arrest protesters, and debated whether the group needed a permit.

Authorities concluded that the graphic nature of the signs contributed to the disruption of traffic. Police were also upset that the group ignored orders to “leave the county” and instead moved the protest four miles up the road, into Bel Air.

Let’s see…. the police want to shut down a legal activity and are upset when the people don’t listen to them?

The case resulted in two things. First, a strong beatdown by the presiding judge to the police:

The judge issued a stern rebuke of the troopers’ conduct in ruling that the anti-abortion group’s case had merit and could proceed to trial. Bennett wrote that police enforced a “nonexistent permit” and illegally ordered the protesters out of the county.

The state police, the judge said, “unquestionably restricted” the protesters’ free speech rights in “all of Harford County, and not merely a small section of Route 24.”

Secondly, the State of Maryland agreed to settle the case and pay the protestors $385,000.00.

It is important to note how all of this started. People called the police because they didn’t like what the protestors had to say. Instead of defending the rights of people, the police chose to arrest them. In doing so, tlaw enforcement took a very strange, hubristic and ultimately wrong stance. The initial meeting between the State Trooper and the Defend Life group has the trooper saying:

It’s Harford County law,” the trooper responded, adding, “You’re not from this county. … Yet you’re going to tell me how to run this county? That’s not going to happen. … I’m a state police officer. I know the law. That’s it.”

The trooper’s statement is so full of arrogance and self-righteousness that it is sickening – especially now that we know the trooper was wrong on the law.

You can see more of the discussion between the group and the trooper here:

Ultimately, justice was obtained through the courts for the protestors. Yet in our mind, they never should have had to go through this ordeal absent of the wrongful and illegal actions and statements of the law enforcement officers on the scene.

We recognize that police have a difficult job to do. Doing a difficult job does not, however, mean you get a pass on stepping on the rights of people, acting like a self appointed judge and jury, or just plain being a jerk.

Do the job well and more people will support you. Do it as in this case, and more people will see you in a negative light.

The police are there to protect the rights of people. When they trample on those rights, they are just as wrong and guilty as any other criminal. When the police acted as if the protestors were an annoyance rather than citizens engaged in a legal activity, the police crossed the line.

In this day and age of “political correctness,” we fear that line will be crossed more and more.

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