Court of Appeals upholds your right to flip off law enforcement

Court of Appeals upholds your right to flip off law enforcement
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News & Politics

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants us the freedom to speak and express ourselves without the fear of institutional punishment from the government. The Fourth Amendment protects us from the government abusing its powers by unreasonably prying into our private lives and spaces. A ruling in March by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld both of these Amendments. The case of Debra Lee Cruise-Gulyas v. Matthew Wayne Minard began with a traffic stop. Taylor, Michigan, Police Officer Minard pulled over Cruise-Gulyas for speeding in 2017. Minard let Cruise-Gulyas off by writing her a ticket “for a lesser violation.” According to the court’s opinion, as Cruise-Gulyas drove away, “she made an all-too-familiar gesture at Minard with her hand and without four of her fingers showing.” She flipped him the bird. Rude.

Minard then pulled Cruise-Gulyas over just 100 yards from her first stop. He changed the ticket that he had just written her to the more serious speeding violation. Cruise-Gulyas sued Minard, saying that he had violated her Fourth Amendment rights in pulling her over a second time and violated her First Amendment rights to express herself freely—no matter how poorly.

The court’s decision points out that Cruise-Gulyas’ initial violation ended after Minard wrote her the ticket and sent her on her way, and because the second stop can only be attributed to the “gesture,” which does not “violate any identified law,” Minard had “no authority to stop Cruise-Gulyas a second time.”

Minard adds that no case put him on notice about this fact pattern—that a second stop after a first stop supported by probable cause violated Cruise-Gulyas’s Fourth Amendment rights. Defined at that specific level of generality, he says, the case law did not clearly prohibit the stop. But Minard misses a point. In making his argument, he fails to acknowledge that the second stop was distinct from the first stop, not a continuation of it.

In response to Minard’s defense attorneys arguing some points of previous case law, the opinion went on:

At this stage, we must accept Cruise-Gulyas’s allegations—that Minard stopped her twice—as true. In that light, case law clearly requires independent justification for the second stop … No matter how he slices it, Cruise-Gulyas’s crude gesture could not provide that new justification.

As to the First Amendment violation, the court found that Minard had met all of the basic benchmarks of a violation: that

(1) [Cruise-Gulyas] engaged in protected conduct, (2) Minard took an adverse action against her that would deter an ordinary person from continuing to engage in that conduct, and (3) her protected conduct motivated Minard at least in part.

The fact of the matter is that law enforcement cannot abuse their positions of power no matter how bad they feel about someone’s way of expressing themselves—as long as there is no clear and present danger (like waving a gun around). This is not to say that Officer Minard wasn’t justifiably unhappy with Ms. Cruise-Gulyas in their interaction. It could be argued, based on the information available to us right now, that Cruise-Gulyas behaved badly and in a way we would tell our loved ones not to act around anyone, law enforcement included. But she has every right to be a jerk. If we begin jailing people for saying jerky things, we won’t have any pundits on television anymore!*

*Wait, hmm … j/k.

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