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Judge rules Ohio official’s rights violated during arrest at public meeting

Jan 18

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An elected Ohio official was handcuffed and arrested more than a year ago for criticizing the Trumbull County sheriff, but on Tuesday, Jan. 16, a federal judge ruled her constitutional rights were violated as a result of that arrest. Niki Frenchko, a Republican who serves on the Trumbull County Board of Commissioners, was reportedly placed in handcuffs at the commissioners’ meeting on July 7, 2022, and charged under an Ohio law that makes it illegal to “prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting.”

The misdemeanor deems obstructive conduct or speech that “outrages the sensibilities of the group” unlawful. Frenchko, who livestreamed her arrest on Facebook, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, arguing that she was ordered to leave the meeting and placed under arrest for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech, and the deputies lacked probable cause to charge her with a crime.

Judge J. Phillip Calabrese appeared to agree in his writings Tuesday, Jan. 16.

“Here in America, we do not arrest our political opponents,” the judge wrote. “This case tests that longstanding norm as well as our Constitution’s robust protections for free speech that allow us to criticize our representatives and public officials.”

Judge Calabrese found the sheriff, two deputies, and both county commissioners named in the lawsuit personally liable for damages. A hearing on damages will reportedly be scheduled at a later date.

The judge expressed doubt about the state law that Frenchko was initially charged under but did not go as far as to strike it down, something the suit had sought.

Frenchko said the reason to take this to court isn’t just for herself.

“If they’re going to do this to me in broad daylight at a public meeting, I had a duty to take them to task so they can’t do it to someone else,” Frenchko said. “It’s so off the mark of what America should be.”

The Associated Press left messages for Trumbull County Sheriff Paul Monroe, D, and current Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa, D, both of whom were named as defendants. The AP reported that an email was also sent to their lawyer for comment. An appeal of the ruling is expected.

Prior to the arrest, Frenchko, since-retired Commissioner Frank Fuda, and current Commissioner Cantalamessa started arguing over Frenchko’s criticism of Sheriff Monroe after an inmate death at the county jail.

According to a transcript cited by the judge, Cantalamessa told Frenchko: “You are talking about the chief law enforcement officer in Trumbull County; it’s unacceptable.”

Fuda then called for a sergeant in the back of the room, telling Frenchko, “You got a choice: you wanna apologize to the sheriff? Fine. If you don’t, we’re going to move on.”

Frenchko went on with her critique. That’s when it’s alleged that a sergeant went up to the dais, pulled Frenchko’s chair back, and ordered her to stand up and leave the meeting. She was later put in handcuffs outside of the meeting room.

Judge Calabrese ruled Tuesday, Jan. 16 that the evidence showed that Frenchko’s “speech caused her arrest.”

The judge went on to write that the defendants are not entitled to immunity from damages because the law has “long recognized that any reasonable official would know that the First Amendment does not countenance the arrest of a person for engaging in protected speech.”

One of the attorneys defending Frenchko, David John Betras, the former Democratic Party Chairman of neighboring Mahoning County, said he represented the Republican official in court because the case has “nothing to do with politics.”

“We can’t arrest each other because you disagree with them politically. Once you start down that slope, it’s bad news for all of us,” Betras said. “Who arrests someone for disturbing their own meeting?”

The criminal charge against Frenchko was dropped weeks after her arrest.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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[LAUREN TAYLOR]

AN ELECTED OHIO OFFICIAL HANDCUFFED AND TAKEN INTO CUSTODY DURING AN OFFICIAL PROCEEDING– 

THE INCIDENT LIVE-STREAMED ON FACEBOOK.

NOW, A FEDERAL JUDGE RULING THAT   HER FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS WERE VIOLATED, SAYING THE “SPEECH CAUSED HER ARREST.”

IT’S THE DECISION NIKI FRENCHKO, THE LONE AND FIRST REPUBLICAN TO BE ELECTED TO THE TRUMBULL COUNTY BOARD OF COMMISSIONERS IN NEARLY THREE DECADES, HAD BEEN LONG-AWAITING– SINCE THE ORDEAL HAPPENED IN JULY OF 2022.

[NIKI FRENCHKO]

“The reason why I filed this case was not just for me. I felt compelled to make sure that I filed something because the government officials don’t have the ability to treat someone as they did to me.”

[LAUREN TAYLOR]

POLICE TOOK FRENCHKO INTO CUSTODY AFTER FELLOW COMMISSIONERS CALLED FOR HER ARREST DURING A MEETING– FOLLOWING HER CRITICISM OF THE COUNTY SHERIFF FOR HIS HANDLING OF AN INMATE DEATH.

TWO COMMISSIONERS REPORTEDLY TOLD FRENCHKO TO STOP WITH THE CRITIQUE– AND TO HAVE THE MEETING MOVE FORWARD.

FRENCHKO DID NOT.

THAT’S WHEN TWO DEPUTIES COMPLIED WITH THE ORDER– TAKING HER OUTSIDE THE ROOM AND PLACING HER IN HANDCUFFS.–

CHARGING THE REPUBLICAN WITH A STATE MISDEMEANOR TO “PREVENT OR DISRUPT A LAWFUL MEETING.”

POLICE DROPPED THE CHARGE WEEKS LATER.

BUT FRENCHKO PRESSED ON IN HER LEGAL FIGHT.

IN FACT, THE FORMER DEMOCRATIC CHAIRMAN OF THE NEIGHBORING COUNTY REPRESENTED HER IN COURT, ARGUING THE  CASE IS BIGGER THAN POLITICS SAYING:

“WE CAN’T ARREST EACH OTHER BECAUSE YOU DISAGREE WITH THEM POLITICALLY. ONCE YOU START DOWN THAT SLOPE, IT’S BAD NEWS FOR ALL OF US.”

DURING THE CIVIL CASE, THE JUDGE DECLARED THE SHERIFF, THE DEPUTIES WHO ARRESTED HER AND BOTH OF FRENCHKO’S COLLEAGUES PERSONALLY LIABLE FOR DAMAGES.

A HEARING ON DAMAGES WILL BE SCHEDULED LATER.

THE SHERIFF AND ONE OF THE NOW-RETIRED COMMISSIONERS DID NOT RESPOND TO A REQUEST FOR COMMENT.

THIS WEEK’S RULING SAID THE DEFENDANTS ARE NOT ENTITLED TO IMMUNITY FROM DAMAGES BECAUSE THE LAW HAS “LONG RECOGNIZED THAT ANY REASONABLE OFFICIAL WOULD KNOW THAT THE FIRST AMENDMENT DOES NOT COUNTENANCE THE ARREST OF A PERSON FOR ENGAGING IN PROTECTED SPEECH.”

AN APPEAL OF THE JUDGMENT IS REPORTEDLY EXPECTED.