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Man whose ‘Cops Ahead’ warning sign got him arrested can sue police

Connecticut attempted to prosecute Michael Friend for police interference but dropped the charges, saying his warning sign actually aided cops in their efforts to curb distracted driving.

MANHATTAN (CN) — The Connecticut man arrested after he stood ahead of a police checkpoint with a “Cops Ahead” sign can sue the city of Stamford for First Amendment violations and malicious prosecution, the Second Circuit ruled Monday. 

A federal judge had previously sided with the arresting officer, Sgt. Richard Gasparino, at summary judgment, but the three-judge appeals panel said the court should have considered Michael Friend’s sign protected speech since it expressed an opinion on “a matter of public significance.” 

“Friend was violating no law by standing on the sidewalk and displaying his sign, and Garparino had no lawful reason to order him to desist from that conduct,” the unsigned 29-page opinion states.

Whereas the lower court had looked for Friend to specifically allege that the distracted driver stop was illegal or improper, the panel consisting of U.S. Circuit Judges Gerard Lynch, Richard Sullivan and Steven Menashi noted that opposing police action is in fact a protected matter of public concern.

“[A] citizen does not need to show that a police practice is unlawful — or that it deviates from some notion of propriety — in order to object to it,” the judges wrote.

The protest by Friend occurred on April 12, 2018, as he stood on a sidewalk with his handmade poster two blocks from a police trap to catch drivers using their cellphones. After Sgt. Gasparino told him to leave the scene and took the sign, Friend moved one block farther from the operation, to a gas station where a supportive worker provided a bigger piece of cardboard to fashion another poster. 

Gasparino arrested Friend for police interference 30 minutes later and seized Friend’s phone as he tried to film the encounter. Friend says he was held in jail until 2 a.m. until his release on his own recognizance, rather than the $25,000 bail Gasparino initially set. 

A state prosecutor later dropped the misdemeanor charge, arguing that Friend had actually helped police “do a better job than they anticipated because, when [drivers] saw the signs, they got off their cellphones.” 

Monday's ruling revives Friend's three claims under the First and Fourth Amendments, but it affirmed for the police on his remaining two counts under the 14th Amendment.

Friend's attorneys at the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut said the decision was a "solid affirmation" of the right to protest the police.

“When Michael Friend held up a sign on a Stamford sidewalk to alert people to police activity, he was well within his First Amendment rights, and Stamford police never should have arrested him," the group's senior staff attorney Elana Bildner said in a statement emailed to Courthouse News.

"This decision is good news for protesters' rights and should serve as a reminder to all police in Connecticut that they cannot and should not silence speech like Mr. Friend's.”

The city of Stamford did not immediately return a request for comment.

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