A 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, ruled the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. A federal judge had sided with the arresting officer, Sgt. Richard Gasparino, but the three-judge appeals panel said the court should have considered Michael Friend’s sign protected speech because it expressed an opinion on “a matter of public significance.” The lower court had looked for Friend to allege that the distracted driver stop was illegal or improper, the appeals panel noted that opposing police action is a protected matter of public concern. The protest by Friend occurred in 2018 as he stood on a sidewalk with his handmade poster two blocks from a police trap to catch drivers using their cellphones, reports Courthouse News. After Gasparino told him to leave the scene and took the sign, Friend moved one block farther away 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 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 ruled 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," said ACLU attorney Elana Bildner.