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Wednesday, May 22, 2024 | Back issues
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Woman Can Sue Over Fizzled 225-Mile Protest

WASHINGTON (CN) - Secret Service may be liable for extinguishing the protest of a retired police officer who walked 225 miles to the White House, a federal judge ruled.

Debra Hartley sued Secret Service Officers Wilfert and Jane Doe, claiming the pair harassed and threatened her because she wore a shirt that said: "Walking to the White House."

According to Hartley's complaint: "The officers told her the law required them to demand from her, as a 'protester,' a battery of personal details about herself and those accompanying her that they promised would remain forever in a Secret Service registry. She could avoid this invasive inquiry, they said, if she left the White House sidewalk, thus offering her a dismal choice, either registering to be listed among a group the officer called 'crazies' or abandoning her First Amendment rights."

U.S. District Judge James Boasberg refused to dismiss Hartley's case, stating that the Secret Service may have meant to intimidate and deter her by threatening to put her on a list with other "crazies."

This could give substance to her Bivens claim, named for a 1971 Supreme Court decision that created a cause against federal employees for constitutional violations.

Boasberg also denied the agents' argument for qualified immunity.

"Because Hartley has sufficiently alleged that defendants knowingly deprived her of clearly established constitutional rights, the court cannot conclude at this stage of the litigation that they are entitled to qualified immunity from suit," Boasberg wrote.

Hartley arrived at the White House on July 20, 2009, after a 225-mile trek from her hometown of Effort, Pa., in the Poconos. Her goal was to raise awareness about unequal opportunity for women in law enforcement.

A former police officer, Hartley claimed that she had personally experienced disparate treatment in the force.

During the walk, which she accomplished with a companion and her daughter, Hartley tried unsuccessfully to contact the governor of Pennsylvania and First Lady Michelle Obama, according to her complaint.

Instead of the First Lady, two Secret Service officers greeted the trio at the White House gates and asked for their personal information, including Social Security numbers, names and dates of birth.

"[Wilfert] told Ms. Hartley that she would probably choose to leave rather than be added to the Secret Service list and be 'considered one of the crazies who protest in front of the White House," Hartley said in her complaint.

Hartley said she was disappointed but left so as not to make any trouble. She allegedly discovered later that there "is no law or regulation requiring plaintiff to have a permit to stand on the White House sidewalk wearing a vest with a message."

She claimed that Wilfert later acknowledged having misled her and said he should have used better judgment.

Judge Boasberg will let the case proceed after denying Wilfert's motion to dismiss.

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