Flipping Off Cops Is Free Speech, Sixth Circuit Rules

CINCINNATI (CN) – Giving a police officer the middle finger is protected speech and doesn’t qualify as probable cause for a traffic stop, the Sixth Circuit ruled.

“Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule. But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable or for that matter grounds for a seizure,” U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton wrote in a five-page opinion Wednesday.

The ruling stems from a 2017 case brought by a Michigan woman who says she was pulled over by a police officer and given a low-level citation before she flipped him off as she drove away, prompting the cop to pull her over again and issue a more serious speeding ticket.

Debra Cruise-Gulyas claims her constitutional rights were violated when Matthew Minard, a police officer in Taylor, Michigan, pulled her over the second time and changed the ticket, arguing she was unreasonably seized and her rights to free speech and due process were violated.

U.S. District Judge Paul Borman found in favor of Cruise-Gulyas last year, ruling that her gesture was protected speech and therefore she should not have been stopped again unless she committed a new violation.

In a unanimous decision Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit upheld that ruling, finding that Minard is not entitled to qualified immunity because the second time he pulled Cruise-Gulyas over constituted an unreasonable seizure as it was not justified and was not a continuation of the initial stop.

“The gesture did not violate any identified law. The officer indeed has not argued to the contrary. Nor does her gesture on its own create probable cause or reasonable suspicion that she violated any law,” Sutton wrote. “All in all, Officer Minard clearly lacked authority to stop Cruise-Gulyas a second time.”

The Cincinnati-based appeals court also agreed with Cruise-Gulyas that her free-speech rights were violated.

“Any reasonable officer would know that a citizen who raises her middle finger engages in speech protected by the First Amendment,” the ruling states.

Sutton was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judges Bernice Donald and Helene White.

Minard’s attorney, Mark Peyser with Howard & Howard, and Cruise-Gulyas’ lawyer, Hammad Khan of Blackstone Law, declined to comment on the ruling.

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