When Stamford police arrested Michael Friend for protesting them, they clearly trampled on his First Amendment rights. So, we sued on Michael’s behalf. But Michael’s arrest was just the beginning of the story. Today, we’re taking action in court to hold the City of Stamford accountable for violating Michael’s rights when it set his bail.
The court has allowed us to expand our lawsuit to include a challenge to the way the City of Stamford sets people’s bail amounts, which means the City is also now a defendant in the case. We’re still fighting to defend Michael’s First Amendment right to protest the police. And now, we’re also fighting to end the discriminatory and dangerous way that Stamford, like many towns and cities across Connecticut, sets bail.
Connecticut law allows cities and towns to set people’s bail when they’re arrested after noon or any time on weekends, when the person can’t be taken directly to court for arraignment. In Michael’s case, this means Richard Gasparino, the same Stamford police employee who arrested Michael for protesting (and violated the First Amendment in the process), also got to decide Michael’s bail amount.
Based on his history and the charge he was arrested for, Michael should have been able to leave without paying anything: he was facing a single charge, has no criminal history, and has lived in Stamford for almost his entire adult life. The Constitution also prohibits wealth-based incarceration, so Michael’s bail amount, if any, should have been set at a figure that he could reasonably pay.
Yet Gasparino set Michael’s bail at an extraordinarily high $25,000. He never interviewed Michael about his finances or if he could afford that fee. In fact, Gasparino testified under oath that his decision was retaliation for Michael’s First Amendment-protected protesting, saying that he set Michael’s bail amount based on Michael’s “actions on the scene” and “personality.”
The City of Stamford did not have a procedure for Michael to appeal Gasparino’s bail decision. Unable to afford the cost of freedom, Michael was jailed in the Stamford police station, forcing him to miss work.
In the middle of the night, a state court official interviewed Michael, revised his bail amount to $0, and released him on a promise to appear later in court. (Later, when Michael did appear in court, a prosecutor nullified the charge, saying Michael’s protest had “actually . . . help[ed] the police do a better job.”)
Michael’s experience of being arbitrarily imprisoned because of his inability to pay his way free is common in Stamford, where police frequently set bail too high. Gasparino himself testified under oath that his bail amounts are changed by bail commissioners “all the time.”
In our amended complaint filed in federal court, we argue that by using an arbitrary bail-setting procedure that resulted in an absurd $25,000 bail fee and prolonged Michael’s detention for hours, the City of Stamford violated his right to procedural due process. We also argue that by jailing Michael for want of $25,000 without any meaningful inquiry into his ability to pay, the City of Stamford enforced a system of wealth-based detention against him in violation of his equal protection and due process rights to pretrial liberty.
Michael’s story is a perfect example of why money bail shouldn’t exist. A person’s ability to leave jail and return home to fight charges after an arrest – including a wrongful arrest that violates the First Amendment – should not depend on money. Originally, bail was supposed to make sure people return to court to face charges against them. But as Michael’s story and those from other places that have mostly banned cash bail show, money bail is not necessary for public safety.
What Stamford did to Michael is sadly common across our state. His claims against the city should put all other municipalities on notice that bail-setting by police must comport with the constitution, and make them question why Connecticut continues its antiquated money bail system at all.
People have a right to protest the police. People have a right not to be incarcerated just because they cannot pay their way free. And people have a right to due process, which protects us from being incarcerated for arbitrary reasons like “personality.”