A candidate running for the seat of U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta is alleging a Hazleton police officer accosted one of his supporters and confiscated nomination petitions from her while she was collecting signatures in the city.
Andrew Ostrowski said in a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court that a city police officer told a woman who was going door to door to gather signatures for his run in the 11th Congressional District that an ordinance required that she obtain a permit at City Hall in order to collect signatures.
Ostrowski, of Susquehanna Township, Dauphin County, says there is no such city ordinance and, if there is, it is “facially repugnant to the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
The lawsuit also alleges that the police officer and other city employees “are knowingly engaged, unlawfully, in actions to intentionally impede and harm Mr. Ostrowski in the form of supportive efforts for the incumbent congressman, and at his overt behest.”
Barletta, a Republican from Hazleton who previously served as the city’s mayor, is in his second term in the 11th District. His campaign manager said the campaign has no knowledge of the alleged incident and declined comment. Hazleton Police Chief Frank DeAndrea, Mayor Joe Yannuzzi and city solicitor Chris Slusser did not return messages seeking comment.
The young Hispanic woman gathering petitions, who is known to Ostrowski but is “fearful of retaliation,” is not named in the lawsuit. The identity of the police officer in question is unknown.
The lawsuit alleges that as the woman was walking along Alter Street on March 4, she was “suddenly accosted by a police officer (Officer Doe) who stopped and detained her,” taking her into custody without probable cause in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The lawsuit alleges that the officer confiscated the petitions in violation of Ostrowski’s and the woman’s civil rights.
Ostrowski must submit 1,000 signatures by March 11 to qualify for a spot on the ballot in May, and says the confiscation of the petitions could hurt his bid. He is seeking the immediate return of the petitions and injunctive relief against the police officer and the city.
“This lawsuit typifies exactly the type of abuse and oppression I have fought against as a civil rights lawyer, and exactly the type of abuse and oppression I will fight against for the citizens of the 11th Congressional district and the people of the United States in Congress,” Ostrowski said in a written statement.
Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said the U.S. Supreme Court “very clearly decided” that no one can be required to register with a municipality in order to go door to door collecting signatures, donations or opinions. She said the line is grayer for selling things door-to-door.
Roper said the ACLU receives numerous complaints each election season that some municipality is requiring someone to obtain a permit to go door-to-door to get signatures. “We send a letter saying ‘You’re violating the Constitution,’ and generally, they stop,” she said.