Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Man Sues Secret Service Agent Over Arrest After Approaching Cheney and Denouncing War

The New York Times
Man Sues Secret Service Agent Over Arrest After Approaching Cheney and Denouncing War

DENVER, Oct. 3 — A Colorado man who was arrested in June on harassment charges after he approached Vice President Dick Cheney to denounce the war in Iraq filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday accusing a Secret Service agent of civil rights violations.

In his suit, filed in Federal District Court in Denver, the man, Steven Howards, an environmental consultant who lives in Golden, Colo., says he stepped up to the vice president to speak his mind in a public place and found himself in handcuffs — in violation, the suit says, of the Constitution’s language about free speech and illegal search and seizure.

The suit seeks no specific damages, and names only one agent, Virgil D. Reichle Jr., who is assigned to the Denver office of the Secret Service. But Mr. Howards’s lawyer, David A. Lane, said Mr. Cheney might be called as a witness, along with the district attorney in Eagle County who threw out the criminal case against Mr. Howards. If a chain of command within the Secret Service is found that suggests Mr. Reichle was acting on orders, Mr. Lane said, more defendants could be named.

A call to Agent Reichle was not returned. A spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney referred questions on the matter to the Secret Service. The agent in charge of the Denver office, Lon Garner, declined to comment.

Mr. Howards, 54, said at a news conference here that he was taking his 8-year-old son to a piano lesson on June 16 at the Beaver Creek Resort about two hours west of Denver when he saw Mr. Cheney at an outdoor mall. Mr. Howards said he approached within two feet of Mr. Cheney and said in a calm voice, “I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible,” or as the lawsuit itself describes the encounter, “words to that effect.”

Mr. Howards said he then went on his way. About 10 minutes later, he said, he was walking back through the area when Agent Reichle handcuffed him and said he would be charged with assaulting the vice president. Local police officers, acting on information from the Secret Service, according to the suit, ultimately filed misdemeanor harassment charges that could have resulted in up to a year in jail.

A June 16 article in The Vail Daily quoted a spokesman for the Secret Service, Eric Zahren, as saying that Mr. Howards “wasn’t acting like other folks in the area,” and that he became “argumentative and combative” when agents tried to question him. Mr. Howards said Tuesday that he was never threatening and did not become upset until his arrest.

“This was not about anything I did — this is about what I said,” he said.

Mr. Zahren declined to comment on the suit or on his original description of the event.

Mr. Howards said he was released on $500 bond after about three hours in jail. A state judge dismissed the charge about three weeks later at the request of the Eagle County district attorney, Mark Hurlbert.

“It was our understanding that the vice president did not want to prosecute,” Mr. Hurlbert said in a telephone interview. “The original indication was that he had pushed the vice president. Later it looked to be that he had just spoken to him.”

Mr. Hurlbert said the initial information on the incident came from the Secret Service agents at Beaver Creek. A later communication from Mr. Cheney’s office or the Secret Service — Mr. Hurlbert said he did not remember which — said the government wanted to drop the matter.

The suit joins two others — in West Virginia and another in Denver — charging that Secret Service agents or White House staff members violated the law in keeping people with opposing political views away from President Bush or Mr. Cheney.

In the other Colorado suit, two people said they were ejected from a taxpayer-financed appearance by Mr. Bush in Denver in March 2005 because of an antiwar bumper sticker. The case is awaiting a ruling from the judge on a motion by the government to dismiss the case.

In the West Virginia case, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of Jeff and Nicole Rank, who said they were arrested on July 4, 2004, at an appearance by Mr. Bush in Charleston. The Ranks had proper tickets but were wearing anti-Bush T-shirts, the suit says. The government has an Oct. 10 deadline to respond to the suit, said Chris Hansen, a senior staff counsel at the A.C.L.U. in New York.

Mr. Howards said that he had had no intent to test the limits of free speech when he approached Mr. Cheney, but that the government’s actions in the aftermath only deepened his convictions and opposition.

“This administration has a history of intimidating folks,” he said.