Federal Court Upholds Right to Flip Off the Police

It’s not uncommon for an encounter with the police to result in stress. Even if you’re detained briefly by the cops for a routine traffic stop such as a speeding ticket, you may feel angry and inconvenienced as the officer drives away — especially if the cop gave you a citation. Speeding tickets can be costly, and it’s normal to feel irritated when you get one.

You might even make a certain negative hand gesture in the cop’s direction as a way of venting or making yourself feel a bit better. While most people might argue this isn’t advisable, a recent case has caused many people to question whether it’s actually illegal to flip off a cop.

In March 2019, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said no. The Court ruled that “flipping the bird” at an officer is protected speech and freedom of expression under the First Amendment. Here’s what you need to know about the recent ruling according to Dallas criminal defense attorney John Helms.

Sixth Circuit Ruling

In a March 2019 ruling, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Cruise-Gulyas v. Minard that raising your middle finger and gesturing to the police is protected by the First Amendment.

In the underlying case, a woman was driving her vehicle in Michigan in June 2017 when a police officer pulled her over for speeding. The officer gave her a nonmoving violation and started to drive away. As he pulled away from the woman’s car, however, she flipped him off because she was angry about getting a citation.

According to the case, the officer was offended by the woman’s gesture. He flipped on his lights and sirens and pulled her over a second time. He also drove his vehicle into hers. At the stop itself, he switched her ticket to a moving violation, which is a more serious penalty.

In response, the woman sued the police department, claiming that the officer violated her First Amendment rights by pulling her over for a second time.

The woman also told The Washington Post that she was disgruntled during the first traffic stop, as the area in which she was driving was set up as a well-known speed trap, where police regularly parked their cars, waiting for motorists to drive by. She said she was angry about getting caught in the speed trap and vented by flipping off the officer. According to her side of the case, she had a legal right to freedom of expression under the First Amendment.

In the appeals case, the officer said he had immunity from the lawsuit. He also claimed that, even if he did violate the woman’s right to free speech, her rights weren’t clearly defined by law.

The Sixth Circuit Court agreed with the woman. In a unanimous decision from the three-judge panel, the court stated that the officer needed to have probable cause to believe the woman had committed a new, second violation before he was justified in pulling her over again.

As the court put it, the “all too familiar gesture” of giving someone the middle finger is protected by the First Amendment. By pulling the woman over a second time without probable cause to believe she had committed a violation unrelated to the original reason she was stopped, the officer violated her constitutional rights. The court also ruled that the officer violated the woman’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable seizures when he pulled her over without cause.  

As the court stated, “Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule. But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable or for that matter grounds for a seizure.”

How Polite Should You Be to Police?

Generally, it’s not a good idea to flip off the police — or anyone when you’re out in public. Most people have a negative reaction when someone flips them off. There have been cases in which a motorist flipped someone off while driving, only to have the other motorist engage in unsafe behavior like road rage.

When you deal with police officers, it’s important to remember that you have rights. Many people are surprised to learn there are police officers that aren’t always fully aware of an individual’s rights under the constitution, as well as state and local law. This is why it’s important to work with an experienced criminal defense lawyer in Dallas if you have been charged with a crime. Your lawyer can help you determine the best course of action in your case.

As a general rule of thumb, it’s always in your best interest to be polite and courteous to the police. You should answer basic questions, such as your name and address, but don’t volunteer information to them. Instead, wait for your defense lawyer to be present before engaging in any kind of in-depth conversation with police officers, investigators or media.

And just because you may have the right to do something does not mean it is a good idea to do it.  Most police officers have dash cams or body cams. If you are charged with a crime, and you are on video being a jerk, it will only hurt your case.  You should consider whether it is really worth the cost. For the fleeting moment of satisfaction you might get from flipping off a police officer, you could end up spending way more time in the officer’s custody, as he takes his sweet time to deal with you, and you could end up with tickets or charges you might not otherwise have gotten.  If prosecutors think you were abusive to a police officer, they are much less likely to offer you a favorable plea deal. All of this means more wasted time and expenses for you.

In any event, if you’re facing criminal charges in Dallas or Fort Worth for a state or federal crime, you are going to need an experienced criminal defense lawyer to protect your rights.  Contact Dallas and Fort Worth criminal defense attorney John Helms today at (214) 666-8010, to discuss your case.

Media Contact:

Attorney John Helms

T: 214-666-8010

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