The Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint Sept. 15 against three state troopers who allegedly violated the constitutional rights of East Hartford resident Michael Picard when he protested a sobriety checkpoint on Sept. 11, 2015.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges that the troopers — Trooper First-Class John Barone, Master Sergeant Patrick Torneo and Sergeant John Jacobi — seized Picard’s camera and pistol, violating his First and Fourth Amendment rights to protest and to fair search and seizure. Picard captured the encounter on video and posted it online in late January 2016.
The three named defendants have 21 days from the date of filing to respond to Picard’s complaint.
“Community members like me have a right to film government officials doing their jobs in public and we should be able to protest without fearing political retribution from law enforcement,” Picard said in a statement published by the ACLU on Sept. 15. “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. By seeking to hold these three police officers accountable, I hope that I can prevent the same thing from happening to someone else.”
State police spokeswoman Trooper Kelly Grant referred any questions pertaining to pending litigation to the state attorney general’s office, which did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday afternoon.
Picard, who ultimately received a citation and a $300 fine for protesting, retained an attorney to fight the charge. At his first court appearance was Jan. 14, 2016, the prosecutor offered a $25 fine in lieu of the $300.
“I rejected the deal because I did nothing wrong,” Picard wrote in a letter published on a blog called “The Truth About Guns” in late January.
Picard, 27, has “a keen interest in the subjects of privacy and federal constitutional law” and has, for the last several years, participated in or conducted protests regarding privacy and constitutional rights around Hartford, according to the lawsuit. As a result, he has “become known to state and local police officers” in the area, according to the suit.
He has frequently protested at drunk-driving checkpoints, where officer regularly stop vehicles on a public roadway to check if drivers are operating their vehicles under the influence of any substance. These checkpoints are not considered a legal violation if their locations and times are announced in advance. Nevertheless, individuals like Picard argue that these checkpoints still violate individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights, which protect against unreasonable search and seizure. On the night of the incident in question, Picard protested in front of a DUI checkpoint on Interstate 84 in West Hartford, holding a yellow sign bearing the words “Cops Ahead: Keep Calm and Remain Silent.”
An hour and a half into Picard’s protest, Barone approached Picard and informed Picard that a public complaint had been lodged against him. Barone then confiscated the pistol Picard was wearing on his hip as well as Picard’s pistol permit, phone and camera.
However, when the officers approached, Picard began filming. Unbeknownst to the troopers, the camera did not stop rolling throughout the encounter. It recorded the officers’ call to another police officer inquiring after any “grudges” he or she had against Picard. The officers proceeded to discuss whether to open an investigation into Picard.
“Want me to punch a number on this? Got to cover our ass,” Barone said on camera.
According to the lawsuit, “punching a number” refers to the act of opening an investigation in the police electronic case management system. Doing so creates an electronic trail that can be referenced in later police action.
In their taped conversation, the three defendants decided to open an investigation into Picard and cite him for two criminal infractions: disturbing the peace and improperly using the highway as a pedestrian. The two infractions were dismissed in Connecticut Superior Court in July 2016.
Picard has posted two videos to his YouTube channel — a half-hour video and a seven-minute version titled “‘Gotta Cover Our Ass’ — Connecticut State Police” — containing footage of the incident in question.
The attorney who defended him in the criminal case, Joseph Sastre, said he hoped that Picard’s case will send a message to both police and the public that enforcing the law means respecting free speech. Sastre will represent Picard alongside the CT-ACLU legal director Dan Barrett.
Yale ACLU public relations officer Sarah DiMagno ’18 said the Yale ACLU, an official chapter of the Connecticut ACLU, is proud to support the work of the group’s state affiliate in defending protestors’ rights.
“In the coming year, we hope to support the CT-ACLU’s work by running ‘Know Your Rights’ trainings for student social justice groups on campus and working more broadly to ensure that students’ rights to peacefully protest are not infringed upon,” DiMagno, who also serves as the Yale representative on the CT-ACLU board, said. “We see this issue as especially important given the high incidence of police brutality in the past few years, and we are proud of our state affiliate’s excellent work in this area.”