January 20, 2011

SAN DIEGO – The Escondido Police Department violated checkpoint protesters’ First Amendment right to free speech by forcing them to move from a public sidewalk near a highway exit ramp, according to a demand letter sent to the City of Escondido by the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties today. The police incorrectly cited a code applying to vendors, not peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional right to free speech. Sidewalks near exits are frequently used by candidates campaigning for political office, among other protected expressive activity.

The protesters include community members opposed to the use of the checkpoints to target immigrant families as well as libertarians opposed to the government’s excessive exercise of its police power.. Signs at the protests have included “White Collar Crime Ahead” and “Car Thieves Ahead.”

In October, Escondido Police harassed and videotaped checkpoint protesters. While telling two teenage girls to relocate, one officer told them, “I am a police officer and I have a gun.” While the police officer in this case was polite and sincere in his interactions with the protesters, his actions raise the same concerns about chilling the expression rights of protesters.

According to the ACLU’s letter, Escondido police officers, on at least one occasion that was captured on video, cited California Vehicle Code 22520.5, as justification for demanding that protesters move from their original position. This code was not intended for such purposes; it refers to the selling of goods within 500 feet of an off-ramp, not for carrying political signs and exercising First Amendment rights. Even if the code were construed to prohibit such behavior, it would be unconstitutional because of its effect on free expression.

“In the United States, we all have the right to free speech as embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution. That right protects the checkpoint protesters, just like it protects political candidates and everyone else,” said Sarah Abshear, San Diego ACLU staff attorney. “Holding a sign with a political message is a classic form of free speech. It’s about as American as you can get.”

The letter refers to a YouTube video that the San Diego ACLU received from an Escondido protester. The YouTube video shows a local police officer wrongly using the California Vehicle Code to move protesters from their constitutional location. View the video below, or on YouTube.

Please note that by playing the YouTube clip above, YouTube will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube's privacy statement on their website to learn more. To view the ACLU's privacy statement, click here.