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Won U.S. Courts of Appeals

Swagler v. Harford County

Angela Swagler


In March 2008, 18 pro-life advocates – including several teenagers – were illegally handcuffed by Maryland State Police during a peaceful pro-life demonstration on public property.  Among these was a young woman who would become one of Alliance Defending Freedom’s clients, Angela Swagler.  After taking Angela’s sign and camera, the police handcuffed her and the others and placed them at a roadside railing. Some of Angela’s friends began to cry. Most came from homeschooling backgrounds and like her, had never seen the inside of a principal’s office, much less the inside of a police vehicle, or been detained by police for allegedly breaking the law.

The students were driven to the Bel Air police station and lined up in the parking lot, where – with the male officers watching – a female officer “strip- searched” the girls, looking down the front of their shirts and digging her hands inside the waistline of their pants. Surrounded by their male teammates and the policemen, the girls blushed with embarrassment … and noticed that none of the men were searched at all.

Inside the station, officers placed the young women in one cell, the men in another, apart from all other prisoners. No one was read their rights, told the charges, or informed how long they’d be held. No one was allowed to make a phone call. No one was told that an attorney they’d met the night before had heard what happened and sent a lawyer to help. Officers refused to let the attorney talk to anyone on the team, or give him numbers to call the prisoners’ families. After midnight, the girls were moved to another detention center, where they were strip-searched again, and stayed the evening. They were released the following day, without explanation as to why they were arrested and treated the way they were treated. They violated no state or local laws.

Alliance Defending Freedom took immediate legal action against the state officials and police on Angela’s behalf for violating their rights. After a four-year legal battle, Angela won a decisive legal victory. Harford County and the state troopers formally acknowledged that the officers’ behavior was unconstitutional, and agreed to train officers about First Amendment and free-speech issues. Angela stood in front of the Bel Air station as the settlement was announced, fielding reporters’ questions and publicly forgiving the officers who had abused her.

What's at stake

Your freedom to peacefully protest without fear of retaliation from police

Your freedom to peacefully assemble and express your views on public property

Whether it will remain lawful to express messages promoting the sanctity of human life

Our role in this case

Alliance Defending Freedom took legal action against the state officials and police for violating the rights of the pro-life advocates. According to one Alliance Defending Freedom attorney that worked on the case, “Prosecuting a case of this nature is very expensive, very time-consuming, and very challenging. Most lawyers simply can’t do it – they can’t afford to. Alliance Defending Freedom has the incredible, sacrificial support of Ministry Friends that enables their lawyers to do the work that they do.”

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Kevin Theriot
Kevin Theriot
Senior Counsel
Kevin Theriot serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom