In a complaint filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU-CT) contends that a Stamford police employee illegally and maliciously violated a protester’s rights by confiscating his phone and protest sign and arresting and jailing him for exercising his freedom of speech. On behalf of Stamford resident Michael Friend, the ACLU-CT alleges that Richard Gasparino, employed by the Stamford Police Department, violated Friend’s First Amendment rights to free speech and information and Fourth Amendment right against warrantless seizure.
On April 12, 2018, Friend noticed 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.
“Instead of focusing on safety and their obligation to uphold the constitution, Stamford police chose to harass and punish a peaceful protester for exercising his right to free speech,” said ACLU-CT legal director Dan Barrett, who is representing Friend in the lawsuit. “As the evidence shows, Stamford police were more concerned about their bottom line and avoiding criticism than following the law.”
“People have the right to protest police, and public scrutiny of police is critical in our democracy,” said Friend. “By seeking to hold this police employee accountable for violating my rights, I hope to remind police that people have a right to protest their government, even if police themselves don’t like it.”
A copy of the complaint filed in U.S. District Court is available below.
For more information about the right to record police in Connecticut: https://www.acluct.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/know_your_rights-_recording_the_police_11.pdf