Woman gets stopped for speeding. Cop shows mercy and gives her a ticket for a nonmoving violation. As police officer pulls away, however, woman gives him the finger – or, as a U.S. District Court puts it, “flips him the bird.”
Cop takes offense, switches on lights and siren and stops her again, ploughing into her car in the process and then, on top of that, changing the original ticket to a moving violation.
She sues the officer for violating her constitutional rights.
That question, plucked from everyday life in the town of Taylor, Michigan, confronted the U.S.Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in the case of Debra Lee Cruise-Gulyas v. Matthew Wayne Minard, in which Cruise-Gulyas was the motorist and Minard the cop.
Normally, cases like this one don’t get quite this far. For one thing, most drivers don’t ordinarily give cops the finger as they pull away, especially when the officer has just let them off with a nonmoving violation.
But Cruise-Gulyas told The Washington Post that she was unhappy because, according to her, the area where she was pulled over in June 2017 about 18 miles southwest of Detroit is a notorious “speed trap” for the Taylor Police Department.
“I know this is a bunch of B.S.,” she said, so “when I pulled off I gave him the middle finger.”
And Minard went to the appeals court claiming immunity from the suit, arguing that even if he did violate her rights, which he did not admit to doing, those rights were not clearly established.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel Wednesday, disagreed.
While suggesting the woman was a bit “ungrateful,” the second stop was not reasonable and the officer should have known it, Sutton said.
To justify the second stop, he wrote, Minard needed “probable cause that she had committed” a violation. He didn’t have it, the judge said. Giving the finger is not a crime. That “all too familiar gesture,” as he put it, is “protected by the First Amendment.”
Since there was no reason to believe she broke the law, he also violated her Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable seizure when he pulled her over again.
“Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule,” he wrote. “But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable or for that matter grounds for a seizure” of a motorist in violation of the Fourth Amendment.