Protester's trespass charges dropped

February 05, 1998|By STEVEN T. DENNIS

Protester's trespass charges dropped

Washington County State's Attorney M. Kenneth Long Jr. has decided to drop trespassing charges against Lawrence H. Freeman, the Hagerstown man who was arrested Dec. 23 while protesting the County Commissioners on a park bench outside the county administration building.

Freeman, 53, had been holding up a notebook-sized sheet of paper bearing the words "Washington County Commissioners won't hire black men" when he was arrested by Hagerstown police.

"I think that this is a matter that is best resolved between Mr. Freeman and the county government," Long said Thursday.


"I do not believe that the criminal justice system is the appropriate place to resolve this particular issue at this point in time," he said.

Long, in a Feb. 3 letter to Freeman's attorneys, said he would dismiss the charges.

"I think Mr. Long did the correct thing and the magnanimous thing rather than drag Mr. Freeman and us into court," said Paul B. Weiss of the law firm of Martin & Seibert in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Weiss and American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland lawyer Dwight Sullivan had submitted a motion on behalf of Freeman asking that the case be dismissed.

The motion said the public trespassing law under which Freeman was charged was unconstitutional because it was too vague and overbroad.

Long said his decision to dismiss the charges wasn't related to the motion.

Freeman said he's pleased he won't be prosecuted.

"I guess they probably felt they didn't have a case," he said.

Freeman said his protest and arrest may not have been in vain.

"All of it served a good purpose," he said.

Freeman said several young men have thanked him, saying they got jobs or interviews after his arrest. He said the city and some private businesses are opening up on their hiring practices.

"I myself am still blackballed. I can't get a job. I can understand that. Nobody wants to hire a troublemaker."

Commissioner James R. Wade said he would have supported prosecuting the case.

"I think the facts still aren't out about Mr. Freeman regarding his employment with the county ... The people in the county need to know about this man."

Wade said the county couldn't release Freeman's personnel file because it would violate privacy laws. Freeman worked for the county as a part-time bus driver from 1983 to 1985 and said he left after a verbal altercation with another employee.

Freeman said the county should no longer have a personnel file on him.

Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said Long's decision was sound and credited Freeman for helping to spur an update of the county's affirmative action plan.

Weiss and Sullivan said they will meet with Freeman on Feb. 19 and discuss any civil action that Freeman could take.

One possibility would be to sue in U.S. District Court to declare the state law unconstitutional and prevent law enforcement agencies from arresting anyone under the statute.

Under the public trespassing statute, anyone refusing to leave a public building or grounds after being asked to do so by an authorized employee of the public agency, in this case County Administrator Rodney M. Shoop, and having "no apparent lawful business to pursue" or "acting in a manner disruptive of and disturbing to the conduct of normal business" can be arrested and charged.

Freeman's trial had been scheduled for Feb. 19 in Washington County District Court.

If convicted, Freeman could have faced a maximum $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

Weiss said that in cases in which he's defended people arrested under the public trespassing statute, prosecutors have dropped the charges.

"My sense is that the prosecutors recognize that there is a problem with the statute. They don't want to get into that fight over what is really a nickel charge," Weiss said.

"It's basically a law to arrest people who aren't doing anything wrong," he said.

Sullivan said that as a result of the outcome of the case and the publicity surrounding it, similar arrests probably won't be made in the future.

Sullivan said Freeman wouldn't have been arrested had he simply been sitting on the park bench. He said Freeman was arrested because he was protesting and exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.

Long refused to comment on whether he felt Freeman's First Amendment rights were violated.

Shoop referred questions to County Attorney Richard Douglas, who said he had no comment.

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