Police settle lawsuit by protester for $50,000

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut officials have agreed to pay $50,000 to settle a lawsuit by a sobriety checkpoint protester whose camera recorded state troopers making up what he said were bogus charges against him, a civil liberties group announced Friday.

The lawsuit in federal court centered on the encounter between Michael Picard, of East Hartford, and three troopers — Trooper John Barone, Master Sgt. Patrick Torneo and Sgt. John Jacobi — at a sobriety checkpoint in West Hartford on Sept. 11, 2015. An internal affairs investigation cleared the troopers of any wrongdoing.

“In a free society, it is normal and necessary for people to protest the government, including police,” Picard said in a statement Friday. "I hope my story sends a message to police departments that they cannot ignore the constitution without consequences.”

The lawsuit was brought on Picard's behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, which announced the settlement.

A message seeking comment was left with the state attorney general's office, which defended the troopers in the lawsuit.

“This happened roughly five years ago, and a lot has changed in how law enforcement handles those situations now,” Brian Foley, a top aide to state public safety Commissioner James Rovella, said in a statement Friday. "Each time something like this comes up, it’s a learning point (for) everybody involved.”

Picard alleged the troopers fabricated charges against him, not knowing they were being recorded by his camera after they seized it. The officers also seized Picard's legally carried pistol.

The troopers are heard, but not seen, on Picard's recording calling a Hartford police officer to see if he or she had any "grudges" against Picard, initiating an investigation of him in a police database and discussing a previous protest Picard organized, according to the lawsuit.

After finding that Picard had a valid pistol permit, Barone tells the other troopers they have to "cover" themselves, and either Torneo or Jacobi said, "Let's give him something," the lawsuit said.

The troopers wrote Picard infraction tickets for illegal use of a highway by a pedestrian and creating a public disturbance — charges that were later dropped by prosecutors.

“Michael was exercising his peaceful, lawful right to protest when Connecticut State Police seized his camera without a warrant and undermined his First Amendment right to protest and record them," said Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut. "Police must understand, and this agreement shows, that they ultimately must answer to the Constitution.”

The state police internal affairs investigator, Stavros Mellekas, now the commanding officer of state police, wrote in his report that the troopers were justified in issuing the infractions. He cited reports about Picard waving a gun at the scene and evidence that he illegally stood on a highway on-ramp.

Picard is also suing Stamford's police chief over Picard's 2018 arrest for protesting the arrest of a friend, who was charged while warning people that police were ticketing drivers for cellphone use.

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