Man Who Gave Police The Finger Gets Federal Case Reinstated

from the digitus-impudicus dept

The middle finger, or flipping the bird, or digitus impudicus, is a wonderfully universal way to let someone know what you think of them. We recently told you the story of a delightful woman who fashioned her Christmas lights into the gesture as a way to help her neighbors get into the holiday spirit. What I didn't realize is how many stories there are of people giving the bird to the police while driving around on streets. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me to be driving past someone who has the ability to make me miserable in so many different ways and give them the finger.

But that's exactly what Vietnam veteran John Swartz of New York did, flipping off an officer and his speed gun as he drove past in 2006. He was subsequently pulled over and arrested for disorderly conduct. He's apparently been fighting back ever since and now his court case has been reinstated by a federal appeals court, who didn't believe the arresting officer's explanation that he pulled the car over because he thought the middle finger was meant as an alert that the female driver, Swartz's wife, needed assistance.

From the three judge panel:
Perhaps there is a police officer somewhere who would interpret an automobile passenger's giving him the finger as a signal of distress, creating a suspicion that something occurring in the automobile warranted investigation. And perhaps that interpretation is what prompted Insogna to act, as he claims. But the nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult deprives such an interpretation of reasonableness. This ancient gesture of insult is not the basis for a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation or impending criminal activity. Surely no passenger planning some wrongful conduct toward another occupant of an automobile would call attention to himself by giving the finger to a police officer.
On the one hand, it's good that a court recognized that there is no law against flipping off the police and that free speech should be protected from hysterically reaching justifications for revenge arrests like this. On the other hand, it's a little sad that a federal appeals court has to delve into such territory at all. Of course, none of this should be read as some embrace for flipping off police in general, but speech is speech and it should be protected. In any case, this isn't over yet and no date for trial has yet been set, so we'll have to wait for a verdict.


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  •  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 4:31am

    Isn't this "obscene gesture" illegal in some places?

     

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      Pitabred (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 5:02am

      Re:

      They may claim it is, but I'm not sure they can legally make it so, given the way the First Amendment has been interpreted relating to it.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 6:34am

      Re:

      Seeing that this took place in New York, here's the New York law on the matter...

      240.20 Disorderly conduct.
      A person is guilty of disorderly conduct when, with intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof ... In a public place, he uses abusive or obscene language, or makes an obscene gesture;


      But note that while he was arrested, he was never prosecuted. So he's suing for unlawful arrest.

       

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      John Fenderson (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 9:08am

      Re:

      US courts have consistently ruled that flipping the bird at someone is Constitutionally protected speech.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Jan 14th, 2013 @ 5:32pm

      Re:

      Only in your fevered imaginations and other dictatorships.

       

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    Zakida Paul (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 4:38am

    At least he didn't call a police officer a 'pleb'. He would have found himself on the end of an intense media campaign calling for his head on a platter.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 4:47am

    Perhaps this officer is better suited for work in a field other than law enforcement, where making up bs excuses for bad behavior is socially acceptable ... politics maybe.

    It is interesting to note the many times officer(s) claim their function is to enforce the law, not serve and protect and then attempt to use "protect" as an excuse for their questionable actions.

    It's no wonder the police are not trusted.

     

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    That One Guy (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 5:08am

    "I thought he was signaling for help."

    With one finger. One particular finger... this is obviously an officer who really doesn't do well under pressure, as well as being someone who doesn't take insults well and is willing to use his job position to retaliate.

     

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      art guerrilla (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 6:44am

      Re:

      ...or he's part of an entitled class of Empire who expects that ANY and ALL total bullshit they utter is taken at face value without a hiccup...

      piggies 'testilie' every damn day without repercussions, why should he expect he'll get called out on his lies now ? ? ?

      part of the corrupted system, is all...

      art guerrilla
      aka ann archy
      eof

       

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    loki_racer (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 6:03am

    Why exactly was it mentioned that he is a Vietnam veteran?

     

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    ASTROBOI, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 6:04am

    This IS a repeat from 1970

    In 1970 (or thereabouts) I cut a little article from the newspaper. Some kid had gotten a ticket for this "offense" and had his case dismissed. They have been repeating the process ever since. Like some creepy civics teacher at Benedict Arnold High School who tells the kids about freedom of speech and issues detentions for making fun of her in the hall, cops have this unwritten law forbidding any sign of disrespect. What usually happens is they drag it out as long as possible. The judge finds the kid innocent. He claims victory. The cop knows he has cost the kid time, money and stress so he claims victory too. Now I keep my fingers inside the car. I have better things to do. Sucks, eh?

     

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    DannyB (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 6:37am

    Maybe we need a 3 strikes law

    The law or court findings should also establish a definition or revenge arrest or harassment arrests.

    After three such false arrests an officer should no longer be allowed to field work in law enforcement. A back room desk job in Point Barrow Alaska is perhaps more suitable to this officer's temperament for working with the public.

     

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      WysiWyg (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 8:07am

      Re: Maybe we need a 3 strikes law

      Three? You feel that an officer of the law who have been found guilty of abusing his/her powers should be allowed to continue be an officer of the law at all?

      Me, I think they should at the very least be fired and blacklisted.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 7:07am

    Even if this guy is found innocent. He just wasted 7 years of his life fighting this in court! He could've served a sentence for disorderly conduct and been done with this 6 years ago. Our justice system is so screwed up.

     

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    OldMugwump (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 7:11am

    This probably isn't what happened, but...

    Suppose you were kidnapped and held in a car with a gun at your back.

    You pass a traffic cop. How can you signal to the cop that you're in distress without alerting your kidnappers?

    Giving the finger might not be a bad solution. The cop will probably be pissed off, and pull the car over.

    Obviously the cop in this case isn't very bright - if he'd said he thought the _passenger_ was signaling for help he might have a case. (And if he'd just wasted 20 minutes of the motorist's time and then let him go, there would be no case.)

    But, given the nature of cops, normal self-interested people don't give them the finger. Investigating the exceptions doesn't strike me as obviously wrong.

     

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      WysiWyg (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 8:10am

      Re: This probably isn't what happened, but...

      Exactly. It's the whole arrest part that makes his story bullcrap.

      But as you say, flipping of a cop may very well be a good way of getting attention.

      Now, I know the cop supposedly claimed he thought the driver was having problems, but it was in fact the passenger that flipped him off.

       

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    A Canadian, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 7:57am

    Stereotypically, US cops are arses

    Living in Toronto, Canada and interacting with police more than once, be it some troubling neighbor or being pulled over for a traffic violation, I started to believe Police is really there to serve and protect and I respected them.

    Until on two occasions in US, one was simple, I left my belt at a security check for the Ferry to Staten Island in New York. The screwed up cop lady wouldn't let me go to get my belt, a total ass of a cop. Besides buying a new belt, my pants kept slipping and I was totally annoyed while on a vacation.

    Second was when driving in US, not sure where I was pulled by an unmarked police car and given a ticket that read, "Passed a police cruiser" or something. I wasn't even speeding. I mean WTF is that ticket supposed to mean. The cop was completely rude an unreasonable. How am I supposed to know that its a police cruiser if its unmarked, further why is it an offence to overtake one when he doesn't even have is emergency lights on. The ticket fine was messily and not worth fighting, however those US cops are assholes, or that is the stereotype of them IMO.

     

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      PRMan, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 10:10am

      Re: Stereotypically, US cops are arses

      Having worked with cops for a while, I can tell you that over 90% of them are wonderful people who take their jobs seriously and really are out to help people. And 10% of them are power-trippers who give everyone else a bad name.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 16th, 2013 @ 9:18pm

        Re: Re: Stereotypically, US cops are arses

        Unfortunately, instead of jettisoning the power-trippers from the force, that ever-so-wonderful 90% goes out of its way to protect them, thereby becoming part of the problem.

         

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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 8:10am

    >he thought the middle finger was meant as an alert that the female driver, Swartz's wife, needed assistance

    Cute. I suppose that officer gives people the finger every time he needs assistance.

     

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    Michael, Jan 10th, 2013 @ 9:59am

    New headline

    Man fingered for giving the finger.

     

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    E G Nyquist (profile), Jan 10th, 2013 @ 12:26pm

    Cops Need to be the Grown-Ups

    Did the person hurt your feelings by flipping you off?

    Maybe put your big-boy pants on and be the adult in this situation, rather than resorting to adolescent, vindictive behavior yourself.

    There is absolutely NO excuse or justification for such an abuse of power, and anyone who would behave like this officer has simply is not the right person to be a cop.

     

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