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I Will See Your Citation and Raise You One Middle Finger

Photo of Travis McCarter

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A Minnesota case made headlines recently for a federal district court ruling which essentially reaffirmed the long-held rule that rude speech is still free speech and thus protected by the First Amendment. The case came about because Debra Lee Cruise-Gulyas was initially pulled over for speeding by Officer Matthew Minard, who elected to cut her a break by issuing a non-moving violation to Mrs. Gulyas rather than a speeding ticket. As a token of her appreciation, Gulyas decided to display her middle finger to the officer as she drove off, prompting the officer to stop her again less than one hundred yards down the road and upgraded her citation to a moving violation. Gulyas sued in federal court, alleging that the officer violated her First and Fourth Amendment rights during the second traffic stop. The United States District Court correctly determined that Gulyas, though seemingly a quite rude and ungrateful individual, was correct and that the second stop was improper. This case presents a few issues which are worthy of discussion.

First, this case is important because it reaffirms First Amendment protections for what can be considered "rude" speech. There is an increasing societal trend toward the banning or criminalization of speech that is considered to be rude or offensive, which is often a completely subjective standard and can only lead to a terrifying end, that being an Orwellian society where speech is monitored constantly and individuals are punished for anything deemed subversive. So it is refreshing to see a Court uphold the spirit of the First Amendment in ruling that free speech is still free speech even if you disagree with it, believe it is rude, or are offended by it. Unless the speech itself somehow violates a criminal statute, a law enforcement officer is prohibited from effecting a stop or seizure of a person on the basis of speech alone. In this case, Officer Minard was correct to take offense at the ungrateful actions of the driver, but he was incorrect in attempting to initiate a second traffic stop of the driver without reasonable suspicion to believe that she had engaged in criminal activity since the conclusion of the first traffic stop. The United States Supreme Court has held that every traffic stop effected by law enforcement must be supported by some type of reasonable suspicion, meaning that once the first stop had concluded, the officer could not stop the driver again unless he had the proper basis to do so, independent from the first stop. Thus, his second stop of the driver violated her First Amendment rights because he was a government actor punishing her on the basis of speech alone, and her Fourth Amendment rights because he instituted a temporary seizure of the driver without the requisite suspicion to do so.

Second, this case illustrates the principle that just because you can legally do something, it does not mean you should. Many people see the title of this blog and think "Fantastic, I would love to flip off an officer and get away with it," but they are missing the bigger picture in this instance. The fact of the matter is that being cited for a non-moving violation rather than a speeding ticket is a substantial break, as the speeding ticket will often result in having points placed on your driving record, increased fines, and potentially increased insurance rates, whereas non-moving violations typically carry none of those ramifications. Being offended because an officer pulled you over when you were clearly breaking the law is no excuse to behave disgracefully when he decides to extend mercy to you. Even if you are legally allowed to make a rude display in this situation, doing so will only serve to complicate matters, as it did in this case. Further, if your actions are perceived as a threat by the officer or serve to incite onlookers in some fashion, you could find yourself charged with a crime such as assault or disorderly conduct depending on the kind of behavior you exhibit.

In conclusion, yes you can flip police officers off all you want, and they really can't do anything about it. That does not mean it is a good idea, and there is no real benefit to you doing so, other than you being able to tell your friends at the bar how you stuck it to the man today by flipping off a motorcycle cop while you were riding down the highway. They will certainly be awestruck at your rebel-without-a-cause attitude and will undoubtedly hold great admiration for you for the rest of your days. Or one of them might chuckle and then continue talking about fantasy football. Nevertheless, in any interaction with law enforcement, a little civility can go a long way. You certainly are not legally required to be kind or gracious to anyone, but it makes it easier on law enforcement and the citizens they encounter if everyone keeps a level head, and remembers their rights and responsibilities, including the responsibility to be a good human being.

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