No more unconstitutional strip searches of pro-life advocates after settlement in Md.

ADF attorneys secure key victory in suit over Md. troopers’ roundup of 18 individuals shackled, jailed overnight for pro-life speech
Tuesday, March 15, 2011

BALTIMORE — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys have secured a favorable partial settlement on behalf of pro-life advocates who were arrested, strip-searched, shackled, and jailed in Harford County in 2008.  The county defendants agreed to a policy change to ensure that peaceful protesters will be protected from undergoing strip searches at the county detention center.

Although the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Northern Division, approved dismissal of the county defendants Tuesday, the lawsuit continues to move forward against non-county defendants who were involved, including the state troopers who initiated the censorship and arrests.

“Pro-life advocates should certainly not be strip searched for peacefully expressing their beliefs,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Blomberg.  “The county did the right thing by changing its policy so that pro-life advocates will no longer be subjected to such needless and embarrassing searches for lawfully exercising their First Amendment protected right to free speech.”

In August 2008, at least 12 state, county, and city police officers handcuffed 18 participants in Defend Life’s annual “Face the Truth” Pro-Life Tour.  The participants started their peaceful event along a public road in Harford County.  Later, however, the group relocated to public property in the town of Bel Air, where they had been several times in past tours, after being told by state troopers 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, the young women who had been arrested--at least 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.  The county later confirmed that no such permit ordinance exists.

In September 2008, ADF attorneys filed suit.  Last October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld a district court decision that denied the request of several state troopers to be immune from litigation.

Although county officers were involved in the second round of strip searches, they had refused initially to be involved in the arrests.  Their primary participation, which involved keeping the pro-life advocates in the county jail, only occurred because of a prior agreement with the state to hold any individuals arrested by state police.

Daniel Cox of Frederick, one of nearly 1,900 attorneys in the ADF alliance, 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.