People have a right to protest police. When a Stamford police officer confiscated Michael Friend's phone and sign and arrested and jailed him for exercising his right to protest, he violated Friend's First Amendment rights to free speech and information and Fourth Amendment right against warrantless seizure.
On April 12, 2018, Michael Friend noticed Stamford police officer Richard Gasparino standing behind a telephone pole, radioing ahead to his colleagues whenever he alleged a driver was using a cell phone in violation of Connecticut law. Friend made a sign reading “Cops Ahead” and stood on the sidewalk to display it to passing drivers. Gasparino approached Friend and took his sign. Friend began recording Gasparino with his phone, and Gasparino threatened him with arrest. Friend obtained a piece of cardboard, made a larger sign reading “Cops Ahead,” and moved to a different location on the sidewalk. Gasparino again approached Friend, who took out his phone to record. Gasparino seized the phone and another that Friend had in his pocket. Gasparino arrested Friend, handcuffed him, and had his coworker transport Friend to the Stamford police station.
On the way to the station, Gasparino’s coworker told Friend that police arrested him because the cellphone operation provided overtime pay to police employees, and the grant used to pay for the operation was contingent upon the number of tickets police issued. Gasparino’s co-worker alleged that Friend’s sign had helped more people to obey the law, therefore reducing the number of tickets police issued.
At the police station, Gasparino charged Friend with misdemeanor interference. Although Friend faced a single misdemeanor charge, has no criminal history, and posed no flight risk, Gasparino set Friend’s bail at $25,000, a fee he could not afford. Friend was held in the Stamford police station until 2 a.m. on April 13, when a bail commissioner interviewed him and changed his bail to $0. Friend, a father, food delivery driver, and junk removal driver, was forced to miss work because of his arrest. On May 7, prosecutors dropped the charge against Friend in Connecticut Superior Court.
On October 22, 2018, the ACLU of Connecticut filed a lawsuit against Gasparino in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.
On September 30, 2020, the District Court issued a summary judgment ruling in favor of the defendants.
On October 23, 2020, the ACLU of Connecticut filed a notice of intent to appeal the decision. The brief in that appeal was filed on January 29, 2021.
On February 27, 2023, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court decision and sided with Friend in his claims that Gasparino violated Friend’s First Amendment rights to free speech and information and Fourth Amendment right against malicious prosecution. In the decision, Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Gerard Lynch, Richard Sullivan, and Steven Menashi ruled that Friend was “speaking on a matter of public concern” by protesting police, and that Gasparino’s decision to arrest Friend and confiscate his signs violated Friend’s First Amendment right to free speech. The panel of judges also ruled that Gasparino “had no lawful reason” to order Friend to stop protesting, reaffirming that Connecticut’s police interference statute cannot be used to prevent speech that police dislike.