Federal Appeals Court Confirms Your Right to Flip Off a Traffic Cop

Tell the truth — when driving by a police officer operating a speed trap at the side of the road, have you ever been tempted to make a rude gesture? You know the one I’m talking about: the single digit, middle finger salute. A United States Court of Appeals has now confirmed judicially that it’s your right to do so if you choose.

When Debra Cruise-Gulyas was pulled over for speeding in Taylor, Michigan by Officer Matthew Minard in 2017, she gave in to that very temptation. Well, not right away. After he stopped her, Officer Minard had apparently given Cruise-Gulyas a bit of a break, citing her for a non-moving violation instead of speeding. Not mollified by the break she got, following the stop, as she drove away, Cruise decided to make a crude gesture directed at the police officer.

As the court put it, “she made an all-too-familiar gesture at Minard with her hand and without four of her fingers showing.”

Apparently piqued that he was not shown sufficient gratitude for his act of grace, Minard turned his emergency lights on and pulled Cruise-Gulyas over again, voiding the original ticket and instead rewrote her up for speeding. Cruise-Gulyas sued, arguing that she and her middle finger have rights to free expression under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In a unanimous 3-0 ruling earlier this week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th federal circuit agreed. “Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule,” Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in the decision. “But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable.”

The case didn’t just hinge on the First Amendment. The Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable” search and seizure require police to have a reason to pull you over. Once the first stop ended, the court ruled, those conditions no longer existed, making the second stop unconstitutional. “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.

The judges said that not only was her middle finger not cause for pulling her over, her rights to flip off the cop were well established Constitutional law. “Any reasonable officer would know that a citizen who raises her middle finger engages in speech protected by the First Amendment,” Sutton wrote.

Minard testified that he acted similarly to how a prosecutor might withdraw a plea bargain if a defendant subsequently acted inappropriately. The court, however, said that the facts of the case were 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 6th Circuit ruling was on a procedural matter. The ruling allows Cruise-Gulyas’ lawsuit over the stop to proceed in a lower court.

a version of this article first appeared on TTAC

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