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Jury Awards Damages to Anti-Abortion Pickets in 1st Amendment Case

September 25, 1987|H.G. REZA | Times Staff Writer

Five abortion protesters were awarded $11,800 each by a U.S. District Court jury after a federal judge determined that their First Amendment rights were violated when the operators of a Hillcrest women's health care clinic subjected them to citizen's arrests.

The case stemmed from an October, 1985, incident outside the offices of the Womancare Clinic on 6th Avenue, where abortions are performed. A Superior Court judge had earlier issued a restraining order prohibiting the Bible Missionary Fellowship, a Santee fundamentalist church, from picketing outside the clinic.

When the five abortion opponents arrived to picket, the clinic operators asked police to arrest them for being in violation of the restraining order. According to James Collins, who was one of the protesters, police refused to arrest the demonstrators because the picketing was peaceful and they were not affiliated with the Santee church.

"We had nothing to do with that group and were not affiliated with them," said Collins. "But Womancare said the order applied to anybody who had pro-life beliefs."

Workers Made Arrests

When police officers who were monitoring the protest refused to arrest the pickets, clinic employees Deborah Fleming and Patricia O'Neil made citizen's arrests and turned the demonstrators over to police.

The five were charged with violating a restraining order, but the charges were later dropped by a Municipal Court judge who said the order did not apply to them because they were not part of the Santee church. The five then turned around and filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court.

On Wednesday, after a six-day trial, a federal court jury awarded the protesters a total of $59,000 in damages. U.S. District Court Judge Earl B. Gilliam had ruled in a pretrial hearing that the arrests were illegal and the demonstrators' constitutional rights had been violated.

Fleming, who is the director of Womancare, said that Gilliam and the jury erred by not considering "the bigger issue of harassment by these people."

"As the person who made the decision to arrest the picketers, I felt very strongly that I was within my right to make a citizen's arrest," said Fleming. "We had a court order that they were violating. . . . These people are part of a nationwide network. Our clients had been intimidated and harassed by these people who came to picket our clinic and supposedly exercise their First Amendment right to oppose abortion."

Fleming said that the court never gave her or O'Neil the opportunity to "tell our story from beginning to end." She said that the clinic will appeal Gilliam's ruling and the jury's decision to award damages.

The plaintiffs--James and Tammy Collins, Kimberlee Huckaby, Joan Patton and Cheryl Sullenger--had sued for $15 million.

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