Green Party says library incident highlights petition drive concerns

Man seeking to collect signatures was pepper-sprayed, arrested by Howard police

January 13, 2011|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

A Green Party operative gathering signatures at Ellicott City's Charles E. Miller branch library to keep the group on Maryland's 2012 election ballot was pepper-sprayed and arrested by Howard County police, who charged him with trespassing and resisting arrest.

That much about the Dec. 18 incident is not in dispute, but practically everything else is, highlighting a sore subject in Maryland, and especially in Howard County — the difficulty in mounting a successful petition drive. Problems finding acceptable places to troll for signatures and Maryland's strict signature validation standards present daunting hurdles, and Maryland Green Party Chairman Brian Bittner says he's worried.

"What are we supposed to do? Where are we to turn to take part in democracy?" he asked. "We're certainly unsettled by it."

Ken Aldrich, whom Howard Republicans tapped last year to organize a signature drive to change the county's charter on tax increases, said he was often ordered away from public gathering places on private property, though he did work several county library locations. His effort failed to gather the minimum number of signatures.

Two other signature drives seeking to challenge zoning decisions for the downtown Columbia redevelopment and at Turf Valley also foundered when thousands of signatures were invalidated under tight technical standards in Maryland law. General Assembly members have talked about easing the standards but have failed to pass legislation doing so.

The Miller library incident in Ellicott City reinforced those concerns, Bittner said. Since his political party failed to attract a minimum 1 percent of the state's registered voters or get at least 1 percent of the vote for the highest office on the ballot, Maryland law requires the Green Party, along with the Libertarian and Constitutional parties, to collect at least 10,000 valid signatures to appear on next year's presidential ballot.

Bittner said his party turned in 14,842 signatures this month, but he's nervous about how many will survive the validation review. He said most of the party's signature gatherers were volunteers, though the cash-strapped organization did hire a few professionals to help.

Andrew S. Jacobs, 38, of Mission Hills, Calif., a paid signature-gatherer and political activist, said he has worked in 30 states during the past decade, including at both of Howard County's largest libraries in Columbia, without incident. He said he was polite and within his rights while collecting signatures at the Miller branch last month, and that the library and county police were unreasonable. Police pepper-sprayed him, he said, when he pulled out his cell phone and asked to record on video police Sgt. William Walsh ordering him to leave.

"I've petitioned for 10 years. I've never been arrested before," he said, adding that he did nothing to prompt his arrest at the library branch on Frederick Road.

According to Jacobs, a library official and two county police officers refused to listen to him, insisted he leave, and police then pepper-sprayed him. After spending more than six hours in custody, he posted $2,000 bond and was released, according to court documents. He faces a District Court trial March 4 on charges that carry a combined maximum of 3 1/2 years in jail and up to $6,000 in fines.

Jacobs said he was more than 20 feet away from the front door, as the library requires, standing by a large potted plant at the top of four steps leading to the entrance.

"I would like to record you telling me to leave," he said he told Walsh. "Sergeant Walsh grabbed me," Jacobs said, trying to take the phone. Walsh then used the pepper spray and handcuffed him. Jacobs said he has no local lawyer, and Bittner said the Green Party cannot afford one for him.

County libraries president and CEO Valerie J. Gross said the system routinely allows everyone from Girl Scouts selling cookies to petition signature-gatherers at the county's six libraries, but she said Jacobs was the unreasonable one whose "belligerent" behavior and refusal to move caused the incident and his arrest.

"People do have a right to express their voices. We welcome that" at the libraries, Gross said, as long as they stay more than 20 feet from the front door to avoid interfering with patrons. Police were called by Stacey Freedman, the branch's children's instructor and research services specialist, who told Jacobs to go to the bottom of the library's four entrance steps, Gross said.

"Mr. Jacobs refused in a manner that was quite confrontational," Gross said. "His behavior was such that we called the police." Freedman declined to speak with a reporter.

David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the First Amendment protects free speech in public places, though the government can regulate speech in a "content-neutral" way. Citizens also have a right, he said, to document what police officers do, using video devices.

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