Stamford Police Department headquarters. Stamford Police Department headquarters. Photo: Google

A 46-year-old Stamford resident, arrested after holding a sign on a sidewalk reading “Cops Ahead” while officers were stopping motorists for cellphone violations, has filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the arresting police sergeant.

In his federal lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in Bridgeport, Michael Friend said Stamford Sgt. Richard Gasparino had no right to take away his cellphone or arrest him. He claimed that in doing so, the officer violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights against warrantless seizures.

Friend is seeking an undetermined amount of punitive damages against Gasparino, the only defendant in the lawsuit.

Dan Barrett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, and one of two attorneys representing Friend, called the arrest “as egregious as they come.”

“The police should have done nothing,” Barrett said. “If we have reached a point where public employees think you can arrest people for holding signs, then things have gotten pretty bad.”

Barrett said there is nothing illegal about holding a sign warning motorists about a speed or cellphone trap.

Longtime New Haven attorney John Williams echoed those sentiments Thursday in a conversation with the Connecticut Law Tribune. Williams, who has about 50 years of legal experience, is not part of the lawsuit. “He can absolutely hold the sign,” he said of Friend’s case. “Some cops think you can’t, but of course he can. He has a right do that.”

According to the complaint, Friend noticed Gasparino standing behind a telephone pole in April, radioing ahead to his colleagues about motorists who were using their cellphones while driving. The lawsuit said Gasparino first approached Friend, who was recording him, and took his sign. Threatened with arrest, Friend moved to another area, where he displayed an even larger sign with the same warning for motorists. It is then, the lawsuit says, that Gasparino, again being recorded, seized the phone and another phone Friend had in his pocket, handcuffed and arrested him.

Friend was charged with misdemeanor interference, which was later dropped.

On the way to the station, Friend alleges in the lawsuit that a co-worker of Gasparino told him that he was arrested because the cellphone operation provided overtime pay to police employees and that the grant used to pay for the operation was contingent on the number of tickets police issued.

“Either you have someone on the police force who does not understand that you can legally draw attention to what the police are doing, or you have an even worse situation in that police view their ability to earn overtime as more important than anything else,” Barrett said. “If the police are trying to say that my client crossed the line by interfering with their overtime, then that is really dark.”

Prosecutors dropped the charge against Friend three weeks after the arrest.

Gasparino, who as of Thursday afternoon did not have an attorney assigned to the matter, did not respond to a request for comment. In addition, Stamford corporation counsel Kathryn Emmett, the city’s primary attorney, declined to comment.

Barrett was assisted by Joseph Sastre, a Bristol-based solo practitioner.