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Arrest may lead to federal lawsuit

Petition signature gatherer was arrested three times in 2012


A Newberg woman who was arrested while gathering petition signatures July 4 in Happy Valley City Park is threatening to sue the Clackamas County city for what she says is a violation of her free-speech rights.

An attorney for 52-year-old Laurie Grooman sent a tort claim letter in late December offering to settle the potential lawsuit for $500,000. The city has until the end of January to formally respond to the letter.

The Happy Valley confrontation was the second time Grooman had been arrested in 2012 while collecting petition signatures in public places. Grooman was arrested in mid-May while gathering signatures at Hillsboro Stadium. She also was arrested Aug. 1 while collecting signatures at the Coos County Fairgrounds.

In late December, Grooman’s attorney, Ross Day of Portland, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Hillsboro, demanding more than $11 million in damages. Hillsboro city officials have declined to comment on the lawsuit. No court date has been set for the case.

On Tuesday, Grooman spent her birthday in Coos County answering charges of criminal trespassing and interfering with a police officer. In that case, Grooman was handling petitions for Signature Gathering Co. of Oregon on a politically charged Coos County charter amendment.

The Hillsboro case could be the first of three lawsuits defending Grooman’s civil rights, Day says. Besides the Happy Valley tort claim letter, Grooman is considering legal action against the city of Myrtle Point for her Coos County arrest.

Grooman says she is paying for her legal defense, even though she hopes the two petition signature companies she worked with will help with some of the costs.

Humiliation in Hillsboro

In the Hillsboro lawsuit, defendants include the city of Hillsboro, police officer Daniel Larkins, director of the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation Gary Wilson, and another female police officer identified as Jane Doe.

Grooman was arrested May 12, 2012, as she gathered petition signatures for the inheritance tax initiative during the Portland Running Co.’s “Hippie Chick Half Marathon” at the Gordon Faber Recreation Complex. Day says several other organizations had information booths and advocates for other causes at the event, which was open to the public.

According to the lawsuit, almost immediately after Grooman began circulating petitions Wilson asked her to stop. When she refused, Wilson called police officers, who took Grooman into custody, “humiliating” her and placing her in “the back of a patrol car for nearly 20 minutes without so much as cracking the rear window to allow fresh air” into the vehicle, according to the lawsuit.

“From a demeanor standpoint, she’s your average everyday soccer mom,” Day says. “She’s very, very soft-spoken. She’s not confrontational.”

Day says Grooman’s case will hinge on her free-speech rights to gather petition signatures in public places, something the courts have upheld.

“It’s a blatant civil rights violation,” Day says. “What she was doing was engaging in protected speech.”

In each case, Day says Grooman stood her ground and refused to leave public places even after police or sheriff’s deputies ordered her to go.

“That’s why she’s been arrested three times, because she stands up and says, ‘Wait a minute, I don’t have to leave,’ ” he says.

Grooman carries a letter from her attorney outlining her right to gather petition signatures in public places. When confronted, she often produces the letter to explain her refusal to leave.

“The first time I communicated with a police officer, I said, ‘I’m not leaving. I have a right to be here. The only way you are going to get me to leave is to arrest me,’ ” Grooman says.

Trampled rights

Grooman has been a part-time paid petition signature gatherer for more than two years. She’s been active in political causes since 2004, but became a paid signature gatherer in 2010.

She was working for Voice of the Electorate on July 4, 2012, gathering signatures for an initiative that would become Ballot Measure 84 (the inheritance tax repeal), when she was arrested for second-degree trespassing during a city event open to the public at Happy Valley City Park on Southeast Ridgecrest Street.

Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies, who provide law enforcement services for Happy Valley, reported that there had been several complaints during the afternoon about Grooman and another paid petition signature gatherer in the park at the public Fourth of July event.

Deputies said people in the park complained that “petitioners were harassing citizens and cursing at them.” Grooman denies that she cursed at anyone in the park that day. “Those words never came out of my mouth,” she says. “I don’t speak that way at all.”

At about 6 p.m., deputies told Grooman and her friend they had to leave the park. Grooman says she refused and was threatened by deputies with a Tazer and “being face-planted.”

Grooman says she was only talking with people at the park and was never rude or confrontational with anyone.

“As petitioners, my goal is to get as many signatures as I can in the shortest amount of time,” Grooman says. “To do that I’m not going to be rude or mean to someone, not intentionally anyway.

“I’m not a confrontational person. Nobody likes confrontation. I don’t either. I’m very outspoken, but I’m not abrasive.”

Grooman was taken to the Clackamas County Jail and held in a cell for more than an hour before being released. She has been excluded from Happy Valley’s City Park until July 5, 2013.

Clackamas County’s district attorney declined to prosecute Grooman on the trespassing charge.

Day says Grooman’s arrest on July 4 added an unfortunate insult to the case.

“My client was arrested for exercising her First Amendment rights on July 4, of all days — the day Americans celebrate our individual freedoms,” Day wrote in his Dec. 27 letter to Happy Valley City Manager Jason Tuck. “The fact that you and the officers trampled on my client’s rights on July 4th is not going to sit well with a jury and will be the basis of a punitive damages award against you and the city.

“The embarrassment, shame and unlawful arrest by the city of Happy Valley have left an indelible mark on my client. She is an excellent witness, and will be very sympathetic to a jury in Portland that is sick and tired of police violations of citizens’ most basic civil rights. Especially on the Fourth of July.”