One Friday evening last September, Connecticut resident Michael Picard was doing what he usually does: standing on a strip of grass by an Interstate onramp and protesting the government.
Picard, a local privacy activist, often protests police DUI checkpoints, which he believes are unconstitutional and a waste of money. That night he was holding a sign warning motorists of a DUI checkpoint farther up the road. Picard, like any good protester these days, also had a camera to document his interactions with police.
What he ended capturing on video is now at the center of a civil rights lawsuit filed Monday on Picard's behalf by the Connecticut ACLU against three state troopers, whom Picard claims illegally seized his camera and then conspired to fabricate charges against him. Unbeknownst to the officers, though, the camera was still recording.
Watch the video:
According the lawsuit, Connecticut state trooper John Barone confronted Picard, saying he had received complaints from passing motorists that Picard, who also open-carries a handgun, was waving his gun in the air. (The ACLU says there were never any such complaints and that Picard kept his gun holstered at all times.) After claiming it was illegal for Picard to film him, Barone snatched the camera and put it on the roof of his police cruiser while he and other officers discussed what charges to hit Picard with.
"You want to punch a number on this either way?" Barone asked one of his supervising officers, police slang for opening an investigation and entering a case number. "Gotta cover our ass."
"We could hit him with reckless use of the highway by a pedestrian and creating a public disturbance," Sgt. John Jacobi suggested.
"And then we claim in backup we had multiple people who stopped to complain," Master Sgt. Patrick Torneo added later in the conversation. "They didn't want to stay and offer a statement, so we took our own course of action."
The officers ticketed Picard, returned his camera and gun, and told him to protest in another location. It took Picard more than a year to get the criminal charges against him dismissed.
In the lawsuit, the ACLU says the three state troopers retaliated against Picard, violating his First Amendment rights to protest and film the government, as well as his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
"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. "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."
A spokesperson for the Connecticut State Police said the issue was subject to an ongoing investigation and declined to comment.