Three Connecticut state troopers fabricated criminal charges against a man protesting at a DUI traffic checkpoint, according to a lawsuit filed against Connecticut State Police last week.
In an odd twist, the state troopers appear to have accidentally filmed themselves making up the charges — using the protester’s own video camera, according to the lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
“There’s a lot about the case that attracted our attention,” Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut, told The Washington Post. “Of course, Michael’s protesting and that’s an important thing. But also we’ve seen … how vital it’s become to police oversight that people be able to record police.”
The roadside protest in question was not out of the ordinary for Michael Picard, a 27-year-old East Hartford man who had become something of a regular at DUI checkpoints in Connecticut.
These set-ups, Picard thought, were a waste of public money. For years, he would find out where Connecticut State Police planned to hold the checkpoints, then would show up with his digital camera. Afterward, he would upload the videos to YouTube, with titles such as “How to Flex Your Rights at a DUI Checkpoint” and “Cop Claims Freedom of Speech Does Not Give Citizens the Right to Question Police.”
His regular protests had made him into something of a known thorn in the side of police — so much so that a Hartford police employee apparently notified state police weeks ahead of time that Picard probably would be at a checkpoint on Sept. 11, 2015, but noted that he was “harmless” and the lawful owner of a pistol, according to the lawsuit.
On that September evening, Picard arrived at such a checkpoint with a handwritten yellow sign — “Cops Ahead: Keep Calm and Remain Silent” — and situated himself on a triangular traffic island near an Interstate 84 entrance road, according to the lawsuit. For an hour-and-a-half, he recorded activity at the checkpoint, including that of state trooper John Barone, sergeant John Jacobi and master sergeant Patrick Torneo, the lawsuit said.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Barone walked over to Picard. Someone had called in a complaint about a man “waving a gun and pointing it at people,” the lawsuit claims Barone told him.
Without warning, Barone slapped Picard’s camera out of his hand, causing it to fall to the ground, an act that was captured on video. Barone then confiscated a pistol Picard had been wearing in his hip holster, as well as his pistol permit from his pants pocket — “theatrically” shouting “I’ve got a gun!” in the process, according to the lawsuit.
Picard knelt down to pick up his camera to see if it was broken and then pointed it back at the troopers, the lawsuit said. Barone strode back to protest: “It’s illegal to take my picture,” he said, as captured on video. “Did you get any documentation I’m allowing you to take my picture?” After a brief debate, in which Picard argued that he was on public property, Barone grabbed the camera and took it back to the two other troopers, as indicated by the video.
“I got the camera,” he told them, setting it on top of Torneo’s vehicle.
What the troopers appeared not to know was that the camera was still working — and recording everything.
In the video, they can be heard discussing how to charge Picard after his pistol permit comes back as valid.
“You want me to punch a number on this either way?” Barone is heard saying, referring to entering a code in the police database. “Gotta cover our ass.”
The troopers discuss where Picard was standing on the road. Jacobi, the sergeant, tells the two others: “So, we can hit him with reckless use of the highway by a pedestrian and creating a public disturbance, and whatever he said.”
They agree. After some additional discussion, Torneo, the master sergeant, adds: “And then we claim that, um, in backup, we had multiple people, um, they didn’t want to stay and give us a statement, so we took our own course of action.”
“Okay,” Jacobi is heard saying.
The police ended up pressing Picard with two criminal trespassing charges: one for reckless use of highway by a pedestrian, the other for creating a public disturbance.
Both eventually were dropped by the state, after nearly a year in the Connecticut superior court system.
“The evidence clearly shows that these police officers violated Mr. Picard’s rights,” attorney Joseph Sastre said in a statement. Sastre defended Picard against the criminal charges and also, with ACLU’s Barrett, is representing Picard in the civil lawsuit. “We are confident that the court will agree, and we hope that it will send a strong message to police and the public alike that enforcing the law means respecting free speech, not trampling on it.”
Barrett said they had not heard anything from Connecticut State Police regarding what action the agency took, if any, as a result of the incident.
“It was unbelievable — this is an interaction that was recorded from start to finish on high-quality digital video,” Barrett said in an ACLU summary of the case. “A year later, there has been zero movement on the internal affairs investigation as far as anyone knows, which just shows that police and prosecutors in Connecticut should not be in charge of policing themselves.”
A Connecticut State Police spokeswoman said the agency was not making any statements about the case, nor would it confirm the current employment status of the three troopers named in the lawsuit.
“They’re not commenting on anything at this time,” she said.
In its lawsuit against the Connecticut State Police, the ACLU of Connecticut claimed the troopers violated Picard’s First Amendment right to “receive and memorialize information” and his Fourth Amendment right against seizure of his property without a warrant.
In addition to the First Amendment violation, Barrett noted that Connecticut lawmakers passed a statute last year that makes clear that a person is allowed to record police officers as they perform their public duties.
Picard also declined an interview but confirmed the authenticity of the videos.
“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 through the ACLU of Connecticut. “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.”