February 14, 2020 | Criminal Defense
Have you ever had the urge to let police officers know how you really feel?
We understand. It’s perfectly normal to want to vent or express your frustration after what you feel is unfair treatment by a police officer.
Is sticking out your middle finger, though, crossing the line? It may be legal, but it’s also not a wise thing to do.
What Does the Law Say About Giving Cops the Middle Finger?
Whether you call it “flipping off,” “shooting the bird,” or “the one digit salute,” flashing your middle finger to someone certainly lets them know how you feel.
Even though many find the expression to be offensive, First Amendment rights protect it.
An Indiana man generated national headlines in 2018 after he filed a federal lawsuit claiming a state trooper wrongfully ticketed him for giving the bird. The man said the officer cut him off in traffic while in pursuit of another driver. When he eventually drove past the officer at a traffic stop, he flashed the middle finger.
The officer then pulled the man over and gave him a $500 ticket.
While the case was eventually dismissed, personnel at the Indiana attorney general’s office have not confirmed if the charge has been dropped as well.
For better understanding, we turn to a recent decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals about a woman who flipped the bird after getting a ticket for speeding.
In their ruling, the Justices said, “Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule. However, that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable.”
Is Giving the Middle Finger to a Cop Free Speech?
Indeed, it is. As long as you don’t cross the line and cause a public disturbance.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that there are exceptions to what’s protected speech and what isn’t.
For example, expressions that include things like child pornography, speech that promotes an illegal action, is a legitimate threat to someone’s life, or provokes others to violence is not given the same protection as flipping someone off.
For the most part, though, it depends on local laws of individual towns and cities. “Disorderly conduct” or “disturbing the peace” would be the closest charge for flashing the bird to a police officer. It’s a charge mostly reserved to combat fighting in public, being excessively loud, or disrupting groups of people in public spaces.
Should I Give the Cops the Middle Finger?
Now, that’s the million-dollar question. Just because you have the legal right to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.
Purposefully doing anything that will get on the nerves of a police officer is not a smart idea.
Remember, while the job of police officers is to generally make our world a better and safer place, they have the know-how and equipment to make your life miserable.
Keep in mind that police officers are protected by “qualified immunity.” This essentially means an officer can violate your rights if – in the view of that officer – you posed a threat to the public.
That means that in the long run, even if your rights were violated, the officer will probably be let off the hook.
How Should I Act If I’m Treated Unfairly by Police?
We’ve read far too many stories about individual police officers who take their law enforcement authority a bit too far. While those stories are disturbing, it’s best to keep your feelings in check.
Even if a police officer has disrespected you or treated you unfairly, the best course of action is to stay calm, and rationally – preferably on video – discuss your feelings with the officer.
Under no circumstances does it help you to threaten the officer, touch him or her, or make a big scene about it.
Simply state your case in a conversational tone and be on your way.
The Key Takeaway
At the end of the day, it’s best to think twice before acting rudely towards a police officer. While flipping off a cop is not a criminal offense, it certainly does open the door for the officer to look at you more closely and consider whether you are a threat.
If an officer tickets you for giving the middle finger, you’ve probably already said enough. The next step is to be smart and call a criminal defense attorney.