Why Would State Troopers Break So Many Laws Just to Put This Girl in Jail?
Standing in profile for her first mugshot, Angela Swagler decided to smile.
And, curiously, they let her. Police photographers generally discourage smiling, but then these officers had already made some exceptions for Angela … bringing her oatmeal instead of pizza, getting her lip balm when she asked for it. Maybe it seemed the least they could do, considering.
But Angela had no illusions that these small indulgences changed anything. On this hot summer night, in a strange town, several of these police officers were still determined to humiliate her. Vested with defending the law, they had already shown themselves more than willing to shove the law aside to silence her and the rest of her small group of Christian young people.
Angela was afraid, but she wouldn’t let them see it. So she looked at the camera and smiled.
All Dr. William Swagler ever wanted for his oldest girl was to see her grow up strong in her faith. He and his wife did their part: praying with their six children every night before bed, taking them to daily mass, enrolling them in Catholic schools near their Erie, Pennsylvania, home.
The schools, though, were not all he had hoped. As an elementary student, gentle Angela was often bullied by other children. In high school, she was bullied by the faculty, too many of whom turned out to be antagonistic to the faith they were supposed to be teaching.
"She really went through a lot of mental turmoil for being faithful to her beliefs," Dr. Swagler says. "But she never let [it] defeat her. She always struggled on." He recalls teaching her, early on, the words to The Impossible Dream – the classic song of the hero’s call to fight unbeatable foes, right unrightable wrongs, and "be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause."
Even during tough times, he told her, it’s important "to be faithful to yourself, to the church, and to the truth." The lesson took. "She’s always done that. She’s a very faithful person. Responsible, humble, faithful to Christ, and very strong in her beliefs."
It wasn’t until her senior year of high school, though, that Angela found her "heavenly cause." A trip to Washington, D.C., for the national March for Life quickened her awareness of abortion, and deepened her convictions on the issue. The following summer, a friend invited her to come along on a five-day "Face The Truth" tour with an organization called Defend Life. The tour involved standing along roadsides while holding signs with pro-life messages, photos of children in the womb, and graphic pictures of aborted babies. (Some distance before the abortion pictures, group members held up signs warning those passing of the images to come.)
Angela says people often asked her how she and the others could hold up such "disgusting" signs. "But the thing is," she says, "if you’re disgusted by these signs, then you should be even more disgusted by the actual act of abortion. These signs merely illustrate the act."
Such an "in-your-face" approach impacts some more than others, she concedes. "God touches people’s hearts in many ways. The important thing is to bear witness and reach out to people, and God will work through you as His instrument to bear witness against abortion."
During a five-day tour across Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia, Angela encountered everything from "some of the sweetest people in my life" to "incredibly hostile" people who "seemed to forget their rationality and let their emotions take complete control."
By Friday of that week, her team of mostly other new high school graduates had made 18 stops – one for every member of the group – with only one more to go before retiring to a nearby park for an end-of-tour picnic. Next day, most of them would head for Baltimore to fly home.
Now, as they all piled out of their vans along a Maryland highway, Angela had her hands full. Her dad had urged her to carry a video camera and record the demonstrations, in case someone harassed them. She also held a sign that read: Jesus forgives and heals.
"Please make me faithful, passionate, and useful like St. Paul,' she prayed. 'Use me here as Your instrument."
The team had barely taken their places when a state trooper pulled off the road and approached their leader, Beth Walsh, telling her that if the group didn’t have a permit, they’d have to leave. Walsh asked what permit was needed to present a peaceful demonstration along a public road. The trooper ignored that, again ordering them to leave or be arrested. Walsh replied that the First Amendment gave them every right to do what they were doing. Take it up with the people at the nearest police station, the trooper said. The team reloaded their vans.
Walsh phoned her supervisor, who suggested taking the team across the county line for their last demonstration. So the group moved two miles down the road to Harford County, just inside a town called Bel Air, and once again took up their signs and places along the road.
Almost immediately, patrol cars pulled up. Twelve officers – state troopers, deputies, local police – walked straight to Walsh and began handcuffing her. "What am I being arrested for?" she asked. None of them would tell her, but they moved quickly to arrest the others on the team.
They took away Angela’s sign and camera, handcuffed her, and placed her at a roadside railing. A helicopter whirred overhead. Drivers slowed to gape and jeer at the prisoners. Some of Angela’s friends began to cry. Most came from homeschooling backgrounds, and like her, had never seen the inside of a principal’s office, much less been arrested on a public road.
After half an hour on the roadside, the prisoners were driven to the Bel Air police station and lined up in the parking lot, where – with the male officers watching – a female officer "strip- searched" the girls, looking down the front of their shirts, digging her hands inside the waistline of their pants. Surrounded by their male teammates and the policemen, the girls blushed with embarrassment … and noticed that none of the guys were searched at all.
Inside the station, officers placed the young women in one cell, the men in another, apart from all other prisoners. No one was read their rights, told the charges, or informed how long they’d be held. No one was allowed to make a phone call. No one was told that an attorney they’d met the night before had heard what happened and sent a lawyer to help. Officers refused to let him talk to anyone on the team, or give him numbers to call the prisoners’ families.
Standing in her cell, Angela tried to convince herself she was still in the United States of America. Nothing in her life had prepared her for anything like this. But then it soon became apparent that nothing had ever prepared the Bel Air police for anyone quite like Angela.
The toilet was a problem. It was right there, in the cell, in the open, with a ceiling video camera pointed at it. If someone had to go, other girls tried to surround her in a circle, facing outward. Angela held out a long while, then prayed, called the jailer, and asked for a private bathroom. He did a double take. She repeated her request. Bemused, he arranged her escort to a private room.
Feeling a little stir-crazy by the time they came to take the prisoners for their mug shots, Angela prayed she might go first, and sure enough, hers was the first name called. In front of the camera, she asked if she could smile. ("Smiling showed that you rose above the situation," she says, "and still retained your humanity and dignity.") By now, a few of the officers were smiling back.
"'What am I being arrested for?' she asked. None of them would tell her."
Back in the cell, Angela suggested that, like Paul, they could sing! No one else was enthusiastic, but Angela says her solo was so bad the others laughed and joined in, if only to drown her out. They warbled through a few hymns before realizing that the guys from the team, on the far side of the wall, were singing along. "Boys, you choose one!" Angela yelled, and a sing-off began in earnest. It ended when a jailer complained that officers couldn’t hear their phone calls.
Come midnight, Angela was trying to sleep on a pizza-box pillow when the jailer called for her. She was being moved to Harford County Detention Center. An officer handcuffed her, put her in an unmarked car, and drove to an ominous-looking edifice, inside a barbed-wire fence. "Is this where you keep dangerous criminals?" Angela asked. Yes, the officer said. "I’ve never had detention before," she said, smiling. "Actually, I’ve never been grounded before." He didn’t smile back.
Inside, they placed shackles around her ankles and began moving her through a series of automatic doors. The shackles were painfully tight. "Officer," Angela said, "you’re hurting me."
"Then you can’t run away," he said. Reconsidering Angela’s size (she is just five feet tall), he actually decided to tighten the shackles. When he finished, she could barely walk. Shuffling down the hall, she thought of Saint Paul, so often in chains for his faith. "Please make me faithful, passionate, and useful like St. Paul," she prayed. "Use me here as Your instrument."
Officers fingerprinted her again. Angela asked if they knew at what stage babies in the womb develop fingerprints. She told them a little about what she and her group were doing, and why. "What, is God with you?" they laughed.
"Whenever they mocked me, I pretended I didn’t notice," Angela says. "I always tried to respond respectfully." That became harder when a female officer escorted her to a bathroom and ordered her to lift her shirt and bra. Tired and bewildered, Angela stared at her. "No," she said.
The officer waited. "No," Angela repeated. "I’m not going to do that." She reminded the officer that she’d already been searched at the other jail. Clearly, though, she wasn’t getting out of the room until she cooperated. So she did as the officer demanded, and was led back to another cell. She was lucky. With the other girls, the officer didn’t even bother to close the bathroom door.
As the first of her group to be moved, Angela thought she might be alone in her new cell. Inside, though, she heard a sound and turned to face a disheveled young woman, barely older than herself, with dyed hair, ragged clothes, and some remarkable tattoos. She seemed uncomfortable, so Angela averted her eyes. Soon, though, the woman came over.
Her name was Megan, and she was intrigued by Angela’s T-shirt, with the words "Pro Life" on the front and "Defend Life" on the back. Megan herself had gotten pregnant as a young teenager, she said, and had gone to Planned Parenthood for an abortion. But she didn’t like the way they treated her – like abortion was "an everyday experience." She also noticed that they urged her toward abortion without offering other options. So she left without aborting the baby.
"Prosecuting a case of this nature is very expensive, very time-consuming, and very challenging. Most lawyers simply can't do it - they can't afford to."
Now, pregnant again, involved with drugs, and jailed for passing bad checks, Megan warned Angela which officers to be wary of. As the other girls from Defend Life joined them, they prayed with Megan, who also told them what she’d heard several officers saying, earlier in the day … about a group of pro-lifers they wanted to arrest, if they could think up any charges.
Two hours later, the commissioner had Angela brought to her office, where she charged her with loitering, disorderly conduct, and failure to obey the law: a $2,000 fine, and up to 10 months in jail. She said nothing about their not having a permit – the only charge the earlier officers had mentioned. She pushed some papers toward Angela, and told her if she wanted out, to sign them.
Exhausted, Angela signed. Minutes later, she was out on the street. It was 3 a.m. Turning on her phone, she found a text message from her dad: "Call me at any hour." Astonished ("I didn’t even know he could text"), she phoned home. For the first time since her arrest, she really felt nervous … it’s hard for a girl who’s never been grounded to tell her parents she’s been jailed.
"I was so grateful she was alive," Dr. Swagler says. Angela had been checking in with him every evening about 5. On Friday, she didn’t. As hours went by, he and every other parent of a young person on the team began making calls … and, ominously, no one was answering.
He’d spent a long night pacing and praying. Now, hearing Angela’s story, he was outraged at what her team had been put through. "They did everything they could to humiliate them," he says. Justice, though, could wait. For now, it was enough that they were all alive and okay.
"Blessed are the persecuted," he told Angela, and urged her to call the other parents right away. She did, then began pacing and praying herself, until, one by one, the other team members were bailed out and released ... the last at 11 a.m. Angela just had time to make her flight home.
A few days later, Dr. Swagler sat in on a conference call with other parents and their lawyers, as the district attorney for Harford County recommended that the defendants all plead guilty to the charges leveled by the police, and assured them that if they could keep from being arrested for the next three years (by avoiding things like demonstrating against abortion), those charges would be dropped. To Dr. Swagler’s dismay, nearly all of the others agreed to that deal.
"I think most of the parents felt like, ‘Thank God my kid is alive, let’s just get this over with,’" he says. For Dr. Swagler, that wasn’t enough. "Isn’t there one lawyer here," he demanded, "who has the [guts] to defend my daughter?"
"We don’t need constitutional protection for speech everybody agrees with, because nobody’s ever going to try to restrict that.
"Yes, sir – I will," answered Kevin Theriot, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. He’d been told about the case by one of the ministry’s Allied Attorneys, Scott Whiteman, the lawyer who’d tried to represent Angela and the others on the night of their arrest. (Despite his interest, Whiteman didn’t have the resources to take on what would clearly be a long and complicated case.) Theriot knew that the teens had been arrested not for anything they’d actually done, but simply because someone on the Bel Air force resented their graphic pro-life message.
"The Supreme Court has recognized again and again that you cannot restrict speech because of the content or because of what the people are saying," he says. "We’ve been able to make some progress in the pro-life area because people who are dedicated to the life issue have refused to let Planned Parenthood and their allies sweep the reality of abortion under a rug. That’s why it’s important that this kind of speech be protected. We don’t need constitutional protection for speech everybody agrees with, because nobody’s ever going to try to restrict that."
Theriot introduced the Swaglers to Daniel Blomberg, a young Alliance Defending Freedom staff attorney who helped them file suit against the City of Bel Air and the state troopers. His support proved crucial, especially during Angela’s grueling three-hour deposition. Opposing counsel focused in uncomfortable detail on the strip searches, often laughing derisively as she told what happened. Several times, Angela excused herself to go to the restroom; each time, she came back more solid and confident. The opposing attorneys finally demanded to know if Blomberg had other attorneys coaching her during these intervals.
"No," Blomberg said. "She’s praying."
"She's a very faithful person. Responsible, humble, faithful to Christ, and very strong in her beliefs."
Dr. William Swagler
Her prayers were answered resoundingly. After a four-year legal battle, Angela won a decisive legal victory. Harford County and the state troopers formally acknowledged that the officers’ behavior was unconstitutional, and agreed to train officers about First Amendment and free-speech issues. Angela stood in front of the Bel Air station as the settlement was announced, fielding reporters’ questions and publicly forgiving the officers who had abused her.
"The legal reality is, whenever you sue the police, there are protections," Blomberg says of the long-delayed ruling. "Necessary protections, for they have a very difficult job. Prosecuting a case of this nature is very expensive, very time-consuming, and very challenging. Most lawyers simply can’t do it – they can’t afford to. Alliance Defending Freedom has the incredible, sacrificial support of Ministry Friends that enables their lawyers to do the work that they do."
It’s work Angela thoroughly appreciates.
"Coming to Alliance Defending Freedom was a very encouraging, exciting, exhilarating experience for me," she says, "knowing there was an organization out there that was going to speak up for me and fight for my beliefs." In fact, the ministry made such an impression on her that Angela attended its first-ever Collegiate Academy in 2012, and decided on a career in law. Now in her second year at Ave Maria School of Law, she’s also completing an internship this summer as part of Alliance Defending Freedom’s Blackstone Legal Fellowship program.
Angela is also still active in student pro-life organizations, and after working with her for four years, Blomberg says the courage she and others show in taking such a public stand for their beliefs – beliefs many Christians play "close to the vest" – still impresses him.
"These are people who deeply care for those who need it most in our society," he says, "children in the womb and their often-frightened mothers, who are victimized daily and need to be saved. We have a responsibility, as Christians, to find ways to speak out and support them. People like Angela are just remarkable in their willingness – and their bravery – to step up to the plate."
"You don’t have a light and bury it under a bushel – because it’s only with light that we can take out the darkness," Angela says. "It was a blessing that I was able to bear witness to the evil of abortion, and take a stand against it."
Some people might laugh at that – the idea of being arrested and strip-searched, as a blessing.
But Angela just smiles.