The 2008 arrest of Angela Swagler, then 18

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has denied police officers immunity from a lawsuit alleging they violated the rights of two young women who were arrested, put in leg irons and strip-searched for conducting a pro-life demonstration.

As WND reported, Angela Swagler and Elizabeth Walsh were among 18 demonstrators arrested on Aug. 1, 2008, charged with loitering and other minor crimes for standing along a roadside in Harford County, Md., bearing pro-life T-shirts and signs, some of which showed pictures of aborted fetuses.

Though all charges were later dropped against the demonstrators, they allege officials cast the pro-life participants – two of whom were teenage girls – in leg irons, denied them permission to call parents until after midnight, conducted non-private “sexually invasive” strip-searches and jailed them until the next day.

Furthermore, the case contends, the demonstrators were not arrested for lawful reasons, but because of the content of their signs, a violation of First Amendment free speech rights.

“The state shouldn’t persecute Christians for expressing their beliefs on important social issues, nor deny them their constitutional rights,” said Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot of the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing the women. “This incident paints an ugly picture of the state of religious freedom and free speech in America today.”

According to court documents, county police stations had received numerous calls from motorists complaining of the images on the signs and concerned about the impact on driving safety.

Law enforcement officials then arrived at the scene, where they found the demonstrators – who were participating in Defend Life’s 2008 “Face the Truth” tour – spread out over a grassy shoulder near the intersection of Route 924 and Route 24 in Harford County.

Though the demonstrators claim they were in no way interfering with traffic, even taking care not to loft posters that might in theory block road signs, the officers insisted they could not display the signs near the roadway, and upon advice from the deputy state’s attorney, ordered the women to take their demonstration out of the county.

The group moved down Route 24 two miles into Bel Air, Md., wrongly assuming that they had left the county. When phone calls from motorists resumed, 12 or more city, county and state officers handcuffed 18 of the demonstrators and led them away.

The young women claim they were taken to a police station parking lot, where a female officer pulled out their shirt collars to inspect their breasts, despite the presence of men. A female officer then took the women one by one into a bathroom where they were more thoroughly strip-searched.

In an earlier opinion from U.S District Judge Richard D. Bennett, the police officers were also denied immunity from charges that they had violated the women’s rights.

“The Amended Complaint sets forth sufficient facts to suggest that the Trooper Defendants, through their arrest of Plaintiffs, executed a policy of suppressing free speech that was based upon an unconstitutionally vague and overbroad ordinance,” Judge Bennett wrote, adding, “This Court finds with respect to the alleged sexually invasive strip-search at the Detention Center, Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim.”

Upon appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals, the court also denied the officers immunity.

“Pro-life advocates shouldn’t be handcuffed and arrested for expressing their beliefs,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Blomberg. “The 4th Circuit’s decision is a positive development for our clients, who deserve justice after what they endured.”

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