State police in Connecticut are facing a lawsuit after accidentally recording themselves conspiring to fabricate evidence against a protester. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut filed the suit Sept. 15, a year after Michael Picard was arrested for protesting near a DUI checkpoint in West Hartford, Conn. Picard often protests DUI checkpoints, which he feels are contrary to the Fourth Amendment and a waste of public money.
The three officers named in the suit—Master Sgt. Patrick Torneo, Sgt. John Jacobi and Trooper First Class John Barone—were all on duty and in uniform when the arrest and subsequent fabrication happened, according to the complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court. The ACLU claims that the officers “violated Picard’s First Amendment rights to free speech and information and Fourth Amendment right against warrantless seizure of his property.”
The complaint states that on the evening of Sept. 11, 2015, officers were conducting a DUI checkpoint in West Hartford on the Interstate 84 slip road. Picard arrived at the checkpoint carrying a sign that read, "Cops Ahead: Keep Calm and Remain Silent." He displayed the sign to motorists approaching the checkpoint in both directions.
The complaint goes on to say that an employee of the Hartford Police Department who is familiar with Picard's protests called the state police and warned them that Picard would likely protest the Sept. 11 checkpoint.
After Picard had been protesting for nearly one-and-a-half hours without incident, the complaint states (pdf), Barone approached him and told him that "someone called in a complaint" about a man "waving a gun and pointing it at people," but no such complaint was made to the police, the ACLU alleges.
Picard was holding his digital camera, which Barone slapped out of his hand, according to the ACLU, causing it to fall to the concrete. Barone then pointed to the pistol Picard was wearing in a hip holster and, the complaint alleges, "theatrically shouted to the other defendants, 'I've got a gun!’”
Picard is the legal owner of a firearm and was carrying his permit in his pants pocket, according to the ACLU, which also contends that he did not once remove the pistol from its holster during his protest.
Barone then claimed—falsely, the ACLU points out—that recording the police was illegal and took Picard's camera. The officer was unaware that the camera was still recording when the following occurred, as described by the ACLU:
With the camera rolling, the officers proceeded to: call a Hartford police officer to see if he or she had any “grudges” against Picard; open an investigation of him in the police database; and discuss a separate protest that he had organized at the state capitol.
After Barone was heard saying, "We gotta cover our ass," the officers decided to fabricate two criminal infraction tickets that they issued to Picard, the ACLU reports. Connecticut Superior Court dismissed those criminal charges in July.
Picard said that community members should be able to protest without fearing retribution from law enforcement.
“As an advocate for free speech, I’m deeply disappointed that these police officers ignored my rights, particularly because two of the troopers involved were supervisors who should be setting an example for others," Picard said, the ACLU reports. "By seeking to hold these three police officers accountable, I hope that I can prevent the same thing from happening to someone else.”