A federal appeals court ruled on Monday that Stamford police officer Richard Gasparino violated a protester’s right when he confiscated Micheal Friend’s sign and cell phone and then arrested him. Friend was holding a sign that read “Cops Ahead” on a sidewalk ahead of a distracted-driving enforcement operation being conducted by the Stamford Police Department.

The ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a lower court decision and sides with Friend in his claims that Gasparino violated his First Amendment rights to free speech and information and his Fourth Amendment right against malicious prosecution.

The panel of judges also ruled that Gasparino “had no lawful reason” to order Friend to stop protesting, reaffirming that Connecticut’s police interference statute cannot be used to prevent speech that police dislike.

“This decision is a solid affirmation of the fact that people have 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,” Elana Bildner, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Connecticut and an attorney on the case, said. “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.”

In addition to unjustly arresting Friend, Gasparino attempted to impose a bail amount inconsistent with Stamford’s bail-setting policy to further punish Friend. According to his own account, Gasparino did not determine that the $25,000 bond was a “reasonable bond” to assure Friend’s appearance in court but based the bond on Friend’s “actions on scene and his, honestly, his personality from what I got from him.” 

The city’s bail commissioner reviewed and reversed Gasparino’s bail decision within hours.

Friend’s lawsuit against Gasparino will return to the lower court, where it will decide whether Gasparino will have to pay Friend damages. Gasparino is claiming a defense of qualified immunity, which is the legal doctrine made up by the Supreme Court in a 1967 case, Pierson v. Ray.

Qualified immunity states that for a state official, Gasparino in this case, to be liable for damages, the plaintiff, Friend, would have to show that Gasparino should have known he was violating “clearly established” rights.

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Tom Hopkins wrote for CII from April 2022 to February 2023. Prior to joining CII, he worked in print, television, and as a freelance journalist.

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