Mark Houck and wife sue FBI and DOJ for malicious prosecution: Era of targeting pro-lifers ‘is over’

The Houck family / Credit: Thomas More Society

CNA Staff, Nov 8, 2023 / 14:27 pm (CNA).

Months after being unanimously acquitted of all charges against him, Catholic father and pro-life activist Mark Houck and his wife Ryan-Marie Houck filed lawsuits on Monday against the FBI and DOJ for malicious and retaliatory prosecution, abuse of process, false arrest, and assault.

The Houcks, a family of nine living in rural eastern Pennsylvania, are being represented by Graves Garrett, a Kansas City-based law firm. The family is also teaming with 40 Days for Life, the national pro-life organization with which Houck has been a long-time volunteer.

Shawn Carney, president of 40 Days for Life, told CNA that the lawsuit is a signal to the world that the era of targeting pro-lifers for their beliefs “is over.”  

What do the lawsuits say?

The lawsuit notices, obtained by CNA, allege that the FBI’s decision to arrest and prosecute Houck, despite his offers to cooperate with their investigation, was “malicious” and “intended to accomplish an illicit corrupt purpose not in the interest of justice, and in violation of Mr. Houck’s clearly established First Amendment rights and his rights under the common law to be free of malicious and retaliatory prosecution.”

“Government agents opted for excessive and overwhelming force that resulted in unnecessary danger and fear,” Houck’s notice states.

The results of the FBI’s targeting and excessive use of force, the notice said, have exhibited themselves in every member of the Houck family both physically and emotionally.

Houck, his wife, and his children continue to suffer from post-traumatic stress, economic loss, and irreparable loss of reputation.

According to Mrs. Houck’s suit notice, the seven Houck children, ages ranging from 14 to 2, suffer from intense anxiety, constant fears of losing their father or mother, and inability to sleep because of the traumatic nature of the arrest.

“Most tragically,” Houck’s notice said, “Mr. Houck and his wife have lost three babies from miscarriages due to the stress of the FBI’s conduct and resulting prosecution.”

According to the notice, the stress of the FBI’s arrest and prosecution of the Houcks has been “so severe that the Houcks have been diagnosed with infertility.”

In total, the Houcks are seeking $4.35 million in damages for the hardships and trauma brought on by the FBI’s actions.

What happened? 

Early in the morning on Sept. 23, 2022, the Houcks’ home was raided by around 20 armed FBI agents. During the raid, Houck, a regular pro-life sidewalk counselor outside the Elizabeth Blackwell Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia, was arrested at gunpoint in front of his wife and children for two alleged violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.

Houck was accused of intimidating and shoving an elderly Planned Parenthood volunteer and thus obstructing access to reproductive services, in violation of the FACE Act.

The incidents, which took place on Oct. 13, 2021, had already been dismissed by local authorities. Houck said he pushed the volunteer because he was trying to protect his 12-year-old son who was being harassed by the Planned Parenthood worker.

Though Houck and his attorneys had previously offered to cooperate with any federal investigation, his home was nonetheless raided months after making the offer.

The notice said that the raid violated Houck’s personal liberty in his home, “a place where he felt responsible to his wife and his children as their family protector.”

“Officers purposely surprised and shocked him with guns drawn, and then humiliated him in front of his family,” the notice said. “He was not only made to appear as a criminal to his wife and children. More importantly, the core of his identity as a father and family protector was violated in the most vivid way possible, seared into the memory of Mr. Houck and his loved ones.”

“Mr. Houck’s oldest son unsuccessfully attempted to shield his younger siblings from seeing their father arrested by armed agents,” the notice went on. “The children stood on the stairs screaming, crying, and watching in terror as heavily armed agents hauled their father away.”

The notice also said that the FBI “further degraded” Houck and “used intimidation tactics throughout the booking process” despite his complete cooperation.

According to the notice, the FBI officers “forced him to walk in chains and handcuffs to the U.S. Marshal’s service.”

“As Mr. Houck was forced to shuffle along in his chains, the foot shackles dug into his ankles, leaving scrapes and cuts in his flesh,” the notice said.

On Jan. 30, 2023, Houck was unanimously acquitted in federal court of all charges of violating the FACE Act.

The Houcks press charges

Houck’s notice points out that the FBI and DOJ ignored the fact that he was also a reproductive rights worker, in his capacity as a volunteer at the Community Women’s Center of America pregnancy center, and thus had equal standing under the FACE Act with the Planned Parenthood volunteer.

The notice alleges that although the FBI had the available evidence to realize its investigation was based on several factual errors regarding the Oct. 13 incident, the bureau chose to pursue charges anyway.

“The FBI targeted Mr. Houck for indictment without probable cause because of his beliefs, his public prayer and speech, and the fact that he is a counselor associated with a crisis pregnancy center,” the notice said.

“This decision by the FBI,” said the suit notice, “was contrary to the DOJ’s public policy, which maintains that the FACE Act ‘is not about abortions’ and ‘protects all patients, providers, and facilities, including pro-life counseling services,’ but it was fully in accordance with the extrajudicial statements of the DOJ leadership that pro-life services are ‘fake’ and ‘predatory’ upon abortion rights. The FBI’s decision was therefore malicious, intended to accomplish an illicit corrupt purpose not in the interest of justice, and in violation of Mr. Houck’s clearly established First Amendment rights and his rights under the common law to be free of malicious and retaliatory prosecution.”

The results, as stated by both notices, have been devastating for the Houck family.

Mrs. Houck’s notice stated that “the stress of these events has taken an immense toll on her body — such a significant toll that she had three miscarriages from the stress. Doctors have now diagnosed her with infertility. So alongside the trauma, paranoia, and anxiety she has suffered, she now carries the grief of losing three children and the pain of infertility.”

The era of targeting pro-lifers ‘is over’ 

Carney told CNA that “this is more than just a lawsuit; it’s a resounding declaration that the era of targeting individuals for their pro-life stance is over.” 

“For years, 40 Days for Life has maintained a cooperative relationship with the fine men and women at the DOJ and FBI,” he noted, before going on to say that “the dynamic shifted dramatically following the reversal of Roe v. Wade.” 

“With 40 Days for Life’s success in shuttering abortion clinics, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the only method left for those opposed to our mission is an untenable one: to silence 40 Days for Life by undermining the very fabric of free speech in the United States,” Carney said. 

In a video published to social media on Wednesday, Carney said that the day Houck was arrested “was not just a horrible experience for Mark Houck and his family” but that “it’s far beyond that, it was a bad day for America, it was a bad day for you and your family, it was a bad day for me and my family, because the abuse of our federal government is at an all-time high.”  

Carney said that “the new blatant bigotry and hatred that the DOJ has for pro-life Americans and for Catholic Americans is a recent and dangerous phenomenon.” 

It didn’t matter that Houck was peaceful and prayerful, Carney said. 

Though local authorities saw no crime, Carney told CNA that Houck’s home was “besieged at gunpoint” in “an appalling show of force,” because the DOJ “sought to make an example of him.” 

“We stand up now to safeguard the rights of all Americans who advocate for life,” Carney said. “This is a fight for our most essential freedoms and we are fully equipped and ready to see it through to victory.”

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