BRIDGEPORT, Ct. (CN) – A Connecticut man who warned motorists about “cops ahead” with a hand-drawn sign brought a federal complaint Monday to protest his arrest.
Demanding punitive damages, Michael Friend of Stamford brought the 8-page suit with attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
Friend describes himself as a jack of all trades who makes ends meet as a food-delivery driver for Uber Eats and Grub Hub.
He says he got out his markers on April 12, 2018, to address a display of police authority he perceived as “underhanded.”
That afternoon at the intersection of Hope and Greenway Streets, Friend saw police handing out distracted-driving tickets just down the road from a telephone pole where Sgt. Richard Gasparino was hiding, “radioing ahead to his colleagues whenever he alleged a driver to have been using a cell phone in violation of the law.”
While Friend stood at Hope and Cushing Streets, two blocks south of the police trap, he says Gasparino snatched his sign and threatened to arrest him if he stayed.
Friend did move, according to the complaint, ultimately finding support for his protest at the Food Bag gas station, three blocks away from the police trap.
He says a worker there saw him with his new paper-made sign and gave him a larger one made out of cardboard. Thirty minutes later, according to the complaint, Gasparino emerged and arrested him for police interference.
Friend had tried to film the confrontation but he says Gasparino seized the cellphone he was using as well as a second phone in Friend’s pocket.
On the way to the station, Friend allegedly learned from another officer that police were getting overtime pay for working the cellphone sting. This officer also explained, according to the complaint, that the department would lose its federal funding for the operation if they failed to issue enough tickets.
Friend says the officer linked his sign to a reduction in tickets, meaning that more people were obeying the law.
This was acknowledged by the state even when Friend was set to be arraigned on May 7. When the state dismissed the misdemeanor charge against him at that hearing, according to the complaint, the prosecutor told the court that Friend “actually … help[ed] the police do a better job than they anticipated because when [drivers] saw the signs, they got off their cell phones.”
Friend notes that he had no criminal history and posed no flight risk, and that he had to wait until 2 a.m. after his arrest for a bail commissioner to change his bail to $0, down from the $25,000 set by Gasparino.
“People have the right to protest police, and public scrutiny of police is critical in our democracy,” Friend said Monday in a statement through the ACLU. “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.”
Gasparino has not returned an email seeking comment. The sergeant is the only named defendant, and Kathryn Emmett, the director of legal affairs for the city of Stamford, has declined to comment.
“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,” ACLU-CT legal director Dan Barrett said in a statement. “As the evidence shows, Stamford police were more concerned about their bottom line and avoiding criticism than following the law.”