Broward News

Antiabortion Protesters Say Hollywood Police Violated Their Constitutional Rights

40 Days for Life is a national coalition of people who protest, regularly, outside the country's abortion clinics for 40 days at a time. The "40 days" represent a host of various 40-day biblical events, like the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert or Moses' 40 days on Mount Sinai.

Representatives from Hollywood, Florida's 40 Days for Life chapter say that five times over the past three years, the group has, successfully and without incident, held prayer vigils outside A Woman's Center of Hollywood, an abortion provider located on Hollywood Boulevard. During such vigils, group members pray and try to educate women about alternatives to abortion. 

But on February 10, three group members claim, a Hollywood Police officer ordered them off a sidewalk, violating their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly. While they are now demanding an apology from the police department, the department claims the protesters had actually been trespassing on private property.

In honor of Lent, the period of atonement some Christians observe before the Easter holiday, 40 Days for Life had organized another 40-day protest outside the Women's Center.  The group provided documentation that shows it applied for a permit to assemble outside the center from February 10 to March 20.

The group says three or four people were praying outside the center for 12 hours a day, each day.

"It was a vigil to help women and to help the unborn," group member John Hickey of Hollywood says. "It's not loud prayer. It's simply praying for the unborn child and for women." He says the group was not passing out leaflets or harassing anyone who may have been trying to enter the center.

But, group members say, Hollywood Police Officer Del Castillo walked up to the protesters and asked them to move off of the sidewalk in front of the clinic. 

"He told us we could not stand on the sidewalk and then went on to say that he had to, for some reason, place the info into the computer system," Hickey says. 

The group eventually left but has since retained a public-interest law firm, called the Thomas More Society, which advocates on behalf of antiabortion groups. On February 16, a lawyer from the society, Corrina Konczal, sent Hollywood Police a letter demanding it rescind the order it placed on the group.

The letter says Castillo ordered the group off the sidewalk because the clinic "maintains" it but allowed them to stand in the swale "without explaining the rationale for banning volunteers from the sidewalk but not the swale." 

"This letter seeks confirmation from the City of Hollywood and the Office of the Chief of Police that Officer Del Castillo was mistaken, that his order to 40 Days Hollywood does not accurately represent the position taken by the City of Hollywood and the City of Hollywood Police Department, and reassurance that the city of Hollywood and the City of Hollywood Police Department recognize the constitutional right of these peaceful prayer volunteers to stand on a public sidewalk."

But, in response, New Times was forwarded an email written by the department's lawyer, David Margolis, which refuted 40 Days for Life's claims outright:
"Officer Del Castillo recalls the events a bit differently than the version presented in your letter. Officer Del Castillo responded to 3829 Hollywood Boulevard after receiving a specific complaint from the clinic. The clinic contacted the police, claiming that protestors (the participants in the vigil) had trespassed onto the private parking lot of the clinic. When Officer Del Castillo arrived, he observed the protestors/participants standing in the swale. He asked the participants if they had entered the private parking lot, and they said “no.” Officer Del Castillo took no further action, except to remind the participants that they cannot trespass onto the private parking lot.
A spokesman for Hollywood Police said the department is currently looking into the complaint but declined to comment further, as did a representative from the Women's Center.

Hickey, the protester, maintains that his rights had been trampled. "We were simply trying to exercise our constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech," he told New Times. "If your rights came under attack, I would try and defend you. I was just out there because of my love for the unborn."

But Margolis, in his email, said 40 Days for Life did, in fact, have every right to organize peacefully on the sidewalk.

"However, please remind your clients that they cannot trespass on the clinic’s private parking lot, nor can they obstruct the flow of vehicle or pedestrian traffic," he wrote. "With this guidance in mind, I am confident that everyone’s rights can coexist.
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli