Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Yes, officer, you may stop someone for flipping you off

So says the Court of Appeals of North Carolina. The court held, over a dissent, that a state trooper had reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle after its passenger flashed an obscene hand gesture at the officer, as the vehicle passed the officer assisting a stalled motorist. During the stop, the passenger refused to provide identification, and got a ticket for obstructing a public officer.

In approving the stop, the court explained that even if the middle-finger gesture itself is not a crime, the "trooper saw Defendant make rude, distracting gestures while traveling on a highway in a moving vehicle in the vicinity of other moving vehicles." Those gestures, the court said, were evidence of the crime of disorderly conduct. The court stressed that the gestures were aimed at an "unknown target" and "could alert an objective officer to an impending breach of the peace."

This result differs from one reached by the Sixth Circuit earlier this year.  In the Sixth Circuit case, a traffic stop had ended and the driver gestured to the officer as she left. The officer pulled her over again, and upgraded the already-given ticket to a more serious violation. The Sixth Circuit concluded that the stop violated the Fourth Amendment because the driver “did not break any law that would justify the second stop and at most was exercising her free speech rights.” In direct contrast to the North Carolina court, the Sixth Circuit found that not only is the gesture itself not a crime, but it is also not evidence of any other ongoing crime.

8/19/19 update: The North Carolina Court of Appeals has withdrawn its opinion. We will follow along and see what they decide to do. Stay tuned!

8/20/19 update: The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a new opinion, again upholding the stop. This opinion adds a little more detail to explain that there were several motorists in the area, that it was unclear who the defendant was gesturing at, and that the officer reasonably believed the defendant's gestures could have been aimed at another motorist and that the situation was "escalating." The court says that there is no evidence the officer made the stop out of anger, and even if he did, subjective intent is irrelevant. This opinion is more careful to clarify that flipping off a police officer is protected speech activity.  

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