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Flipping off a traffic cop is protected free speech, a court rules

21 March 2019 - Autoblog

Flipping off a traffic cop is protected free speech, a court rules

So sure, you could do that if you wanted

It sounds like something Florida Man would do, but instead it was an act of protest and defiance from a Michigan woman: Debra Cruise-Gulyas had been pulled over for speeding. The officer, Matthew Minard, wrote her a ticket for a lesser, non-moving offense. Angry anyway, she responded with what the officer felt was a greater offense — she flipped him the bird.

The exchange happened in 2017. After accepting the citation, Cruise-Gulyas, of Taylor, Mich., was driving away from the traffic stop when, "apparently ungrateful for the reduction, she made an all-too-familiar gesture at Minard with her hand and without four of her fingers showing," read an opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. "That did not make Minard happy."

So he stopped her again, and upped the citation to speeding.

She sued, saying, among other things, that he had violated her First Amendment rights by retaliating against an act of free speech.

A lower court, and then the appeals court, sided with Cruise-Gulyas. The fact there were two separate stops was a factor in the decision. First, he stopped her for speeding and cited her, at which point "any authority to seize her in connection with that infraction ended when the first stop concluded," the appeals court ruled. When he stopped her again, based on the one-fingered salute, it was unjustified.

Sure, she was vulgar, the court said. But it was her right. The 3-0 ruling on a motion to dismiss means Cruise-Gulyas' lawsuit can proceed.

"Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule," wrote Judge Jeffrey Sutton. "But that doesn't make them illegal or for that matter punishable."

And this wasn't the first time a federal court has ruled in favor of flipping off a traffic cop. The New York Times reports at least two other cases.

So flip off a cop? OK, feel free, it's your constitutional right — if, you know, you're feeling that sure of yourself. But keep in mind that the case asserting your right, or the case you might bring over any police misconduct that could ensue, is only going to take a couple of years in court and a lot of expense. Maybe it's just easier not to poke the bear.

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