OK to Flip Off the Cops, Court Rules

Posted January 11, 2013 in Criminal Law Your Personal Rights by

Pixelated middle finger raised toward a police car

Perfectly legal

You heard it from N.W.A. first in their 1988 protest song: A man can sue the police after they arrested him for flipping them the bird, a federal court ruled last week.

John Swartz was a passenger in a car driven by his wife through St. Johnsville, N. Y. in 2006 when the couple passed a police officer tracking cars with a radar gun. Swartz apparently disapproved of the speed trap, which he expressed by sticking his hand out the window and raising a one-finger salute in the officer’s direction.

The police officer then followed them to their destination, turned on his lights, and asked for license and registration. Three more officers arrived as backup and Swartz was then arrested for disorderly conduct after he allegedly yelled at the officers about being humiliated. The charges were thrown out, but he filed a malicious prosecution lawsuit against the police which will now be allowed to proceed.

The officer claimed that he thought that Swartz was indicating some kind of distress over a domestic situation, which he why he followed the car. Malarkey, the judges ruled, acknowledging “the nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult” and noting that it had been used by Greek philosophers to convey the same meaning at least as far back as 400 B.C.

Subscribe to the Criminal Law newsletterThe bottom line: The middle finger in and of itself is not probable cause to pull over a vehicle that hasn’t committed any actual infractions.

“It reaffirms that just because you insult a police officer doesn’t give that police officer the right to detain you or arrest you and take away your liberty,” Swartz’s attorney, Elmer Robert Keach III, told the AP after the ruling which he characterized as “an important victory for human rights.”

It’s unclear if the ruling extends to other types of rude hand gestures.

Tagged as: ,