4th Circuit issues important ruling in case of Md. troopers who arrested pro-life speakers

Court upholds district court judgment that denied troopers’ request to be immune from lawsuit
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

RICHMOND, Va. — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit Monday upheld 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. The officers handcuffed and arrested 18 pro-life advocates for sharing a peaceful pro-life message along a public street in August 2008.

Among those arrested were three young women who were later shackled, strip-searched, and detained overnight by other police.

“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.

In August 2008, at least 12 state, county, and city police officers handcuffed the 18 pro-life advocates in Defend Life’s “Face the Truth” Pro-Life Tour. 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.  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.

ADF-allied attorney Daniel Cox is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit, Swagler v. Harford County.
  • Photo of a Maryland state trooper handcuffing Joan Walsh, 18, during the Defend Life event in Bel Air
  • Pronunciation guide: Blomberg (BLAHM’-burg)
ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.