11/1/2018Speed Trap Protester Sues Connecticut Cops
Connecticut man jailed for holding a sign warning motorists of a ticketing trap sues arresting officer in federal court.
Holding a sign to warn fellow motorists about an upcoming police ticket trap is not a crime, according to a Connecticut man who filed a federal lawsuit against Stamford police. Michael Friend says he was unlawfully arrested on April 12, 2018, for displaying a simple, cardboard sign reading "Cops Ahead" while standing on the sidewalk 30 yards from the trap.
"Mr. Friend seeks damages to remind the defendant that public scrutiny of police is a mandatory component of democracy," American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Dan Barrett wrote on Friend's behalf.
In this case, Friend noticed Officer Richard Gasparino hiding behind a telephone pole at the intersection of Hope Street and Cushing Street. The officer was the spotter in a sting operation designed to hand out as many cell phone tickets as possible to passing drivers. As soon as the officer realized he was no longer able to ticket anyone, he decided to walk over to Friend. He began the confrontation by grabbing the warning sign out of the man's hands. Friend used his cellphone to record the interaction. After a brief exchange, Friend was released. About half an hour later, Friend returned with a new sign, and the tickets once again dried up.
"This time I took his phone and seized it as evidence because it captured the first interaction between Friend and I to protect myself from any false claims of physical abuse," Officer Gasparino wrote in his police report. "It should be noted that by Friend holding this sign he was tipping off motorists and due to this officers were not observing as many violations as they should be."
Those violations are important to Stamford, beyond just the $150 to $500 each citation generated. Stamford must issue a set number of those violations to qualify for a share of a $2 million bonus the US Department of Transportation (US DOT) gives to the state for distribution to local police departments.
"It should be noted that the detail is a federal [sic] funded grant and the grant is currently running the entire month of April," Officer Gasparino explained. "The grant is targeted to penalize operators that are using their cell phones while operating a motor vehicle."
These distracted driving enforcement grants contain formal requirements that officers issue a set number of tickets, or else the local police department will lose the grant money (view US DOT policy).
Friend, who has no criminal record, was handcuffed and held in jail on a charge of interfering with a police officer. He was not released until 2am the next day because he was unable to post a $25,000 bond. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, but the ACLU is seeking compensation for lost wages and the significant expenses Friend incurred hiring a defense attorney to defend his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.