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Police Officer Can't Pull Over Driver For Giving Him The Finger, Court Rules

Doug Menuez
/
Forrester Images via Getty Images

If you've ever been tempted to make a rude gesture at a police officer, you can rest assured that the Constitution protects your right to do so, a federal appeals court says.

In the sequence of events described by the court, a woman in Michigan, Debra Cruise-Gulyas, was pulled over in 2017 for speeding. The officer showed leniency, writing her up for a lesser violation known as a nonmoving violation. As she drove away, apparently insufficiently appreciative of the officer's gesture, Cruise-Gulyas made a certain gesture of her own. Or as the court put it, "she made an all-too-familiar gesture at [Officer Matthew] Minard with her hand and without four of her fingers showing."

Minard was not amused. He pulled her over again and rewrote the ticket for speeding. Cruise-Gulyas sued, arguing she had a First Amendment right to wiggle whatever finger she wanted at the police.

In a rulingthis week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed. "Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule," wrote Judge Jeffrey Sutton for the 3-0 panel. "But that doesn't make them illegal or for that matter punishable."

And once the first stop ended, Minard needed a legitimate reason to pull the driver over again. Detaining her without one constituted an "unreasonable seizure" in violation of the Fourth Amendment, the court said. "Cruise-Gulyas did not break any law that would justify the second stop and at most was exercising her free speech rights," the court wrote.

It is well-settled that what Cruise-Gulyas did is protected by the Constitution, the court said. "Any reasonable officer would know that a citizen who raises her middle finger engages in speech protected by the First Amendment," Sutton wrote.

Minard analogized his actions to a prosecutor who might renege on a plea deal if a defendant behaved offensively. But the court wasn't swayed. The facts here are more like "a judge who hauls the defendant back into court a week or two after imposing a sentence based on the defendant's after-the-fact speech," the court said. "Minard, in short, clearly had no proper basis for seizing Cruise-Gulyas a second time."

The court's ruling means Cruise-Gulyas' lawsuit can proceed in a lower court.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").