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Third Party petitioner harassed, pepper sprayed, and arrested outside Maryland public library

by Damon Eris, published

A little-noticed incident in Ellicott City, Maryland highlights the institutional hurdles and biases against minor political parties, the harassment of citizens engaged in constitutionally protected activities by public employees, the hostility on the part of the police toward those who record their interactions with the public, and the inaccuracies common in mainstream media reporting.

On December 18th, a professional petition circulator by the name of Andy Jacobs was collecting signatures for the ballot access drives of the state’s Libertarian and Green parties outside a public library in Ellicott City, Maryland.  Following a dispute with a library employee who had ordered Mr. Jacobs to move his operation farther away from the library entrance, the library employee called police.  After the officers arrived, the library employee, Stacey Freedman, ordered Jacobs to leave the grounds, stating that he did not have permission to circulate his petitions there.  The officers threatened Jacobs with arrest if he did not follow the order, at which point Jacobs stated that he would leave after recording the conversation and the order on his cell phone.  Jacobs was then allegedly grabbed by police, who tried to take his phone, an action which he allegedly resisted, and he was then pepper sprayed and arrested.  Jacobs was subsequently charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.  This is according to a report on the incident published last week by The Baltimore Sun, as well as an account at the Independent Political Report.    

In states all across the country, third party and independent political organizations are currently engaged in petition drives to collect the requisite number of signatures to qualify for ballot access in the elections of 2012 and beyond.  To qualify for ballot access in Maryland – which, like many other states, has restrictive ballot access laws for third party and independent candidates – minor parties must either have a registered membership equal to at least 1% of all registered voters, or have garnered at least 1% of the vote in the previous gubernatorial election, or collect 10,000 petition signatures in support of their ballot access drive.  The Libertarian and Green Parties of Maryland are both currently engaged in ballot access petition drives for the 2012 elections. 

Though the article on the December 18th incident in The Baltimore Sun refers to Andy Jacobs as “a Green Party operative,” Jacobs is actually a veteran professional petition circulator and a member of the Libertarian Party.  Over the course of the petition drive in question, Jacobs had been gathering signatures for both the Libertarian and the Green Parties, according to the account by a fellow circulator at Independent Political Report.  As reported by Ballot Access News, the petition deadline for minor parties that wish to obtain or regain qualified status in Maryland is not until August 2012.  However, minor parties that were on the ballot in 2010 were told by election officials that if they did not submit those petitions by January 7, 2011, their party members would lose their registration status.  In his report on this development, Richard Winger commented, “In other words, if the Constitution, Green and Libertarian Parties want their registered members to continue to be registered in those parties, those parties had to rush their 2012 petition.”  It is for this reason that Andy Jacobs, among others, was gathering signatures in Maryland for the 2012 presidential election in December of 2010.  This month, the Green and Libertarian Parties respectively submitted 14,842 and 13,787 signatures to meet the requirement of 10,000 valid signatures.  Third parties often submit petitions with signature totals far exceeding the required number because Democratic and Republican party operatives routinely challenge third party ballot access petition signatures in the hope of denying those parties access to the ballot. 

According to Paulie Cannoli, the petition circulator who published an account of his experiences collecting signatures in Maryland for this drive, circulators “are frequently harassed in public places where the right to petition has been legally established, by government employees who are not aware of the relevant court cases.”  While working in front of the same library as Jacobs, but on a different occasion, Cannoli says, he too was told by library employee Stacey Freedman that he was “not allowed to petition there.”  Cannoli also recounts a similar incident with the manager of another branch of the public library in East Columbia Maryland.  The Chairman of the Maryland Green Party, Brian Bittner, highlighted the Catch-22 confronting minor parties in the article for The Baltimore Sun:  

     “Bittner took issue with being required by state law to collect signatures, then encountering resistance from public employees. "Not only are we required to do it, but we can't do it here" seems to be a contradictory message, he said.”

A final troubling aspect of the Jacobs incident is the hostility of police toward an individual seeking to record an interaction with law enforcement officers.  Cannoli writes:

     “what prompted the arrest was not refusing to leave, which Andy agreed to do even though numerous rulings all the way up to the Supreme Court say he had a right to be there, but because he wanted to have a record of being ordered to leave.”  

One might be tempted to disregard such a conclusion if there were not so much evidence of hostility toward citizens who seek to hold them accountable for their actions by creating a recording of police encounters with the public.  In one highly publicized case from last year, motorcyclist Anthony Graber was charged by police with a felony violation of Maryland wiretapping laws for recording a police officer without his consent after placing a helmet-cam video of his receipt of a speeding ticket at the barrel of a gun on Youtube.  The wiretapping charges against Graber were eventually dropped when the judge in the case ruled that the wire tap law does not apply in situations where there is no expectation of privacy.  

As Radley Balko recently wrote in a lengthy article for Reason Magazine: “It has never been easier – or more dangerous – to record the police.”