Have you ever had the urge to flip off a police officer during or after a traffic stop? Maybe you were pulled over for barely exceeding the limit, or perhaps the officer was just curt and unpleasant during your interaction. You may have thought twice before giving them the finger, fearing that it may be against the law. However, you may be surprised to learn that flipping off a cop isn’t actually prohibited by law. While giving a cop the finger may not be the smartest choice, it also can’t land you behind bars.
Freedom of Speech
The Constitution protects each American’s right to freely express him or herself. There are very limited exceptions to this rule. For example, hate speech and speech that invokes violence are generally not protected under the First Amendment. In most cases, as long as your speech doesn’t put others in harm’s way, it is generally protected. This includes speech aimed at law enforcement officers.
What is Speech?
A quick note: for the purposes of the First Amendment, “speech” is broadly defined. It includes much more than simply speaking verbally. In fact, courts have held that many different behaviors can be protected as “speech” under the First Amendment. Examples of speech that are protected by law include:
- Refusing the speak
- Refusing the salute the flag
- Wearing armbands or clothing in protest of something
- Using otherwise offensive words for political purposes
- Contributing money to a political campaign, and
- Engaging in symbolic behavior to demonstrate a protest.
However, not all behaviors are protected under the First Amendment right to free speech. Courts have held that the following behaviors are not protected as speech:
- Words that incite violence or cause harm
- Distributing or making obscene materials
- Burning draft cards to protest a war
- Making obscene statements at a school function, or
- Advocating illegal drug use at a school event.
Giving the Finger to a Police Officer
What about raising your middle finger to a police officer? Is that conduct that would be protected under the First Amendment? At least one federal court has decided that flipping off a cop is protected speech.
In 2006, a New York man was arrested for disorderly conduct after he gave a police officer the finger. According to reports, the man flipped off the cop when he saw that the officer was using radar equipment to detect speeding drivers. The officer, having no true justification for executing the traffic stop, pulled the man over for his crude gesture and executed an arrest. When pressed for why the man was pulled over and arrested, the officer explained that he believed the driver’s passenger was in danger. The court disagreed, explaining that giving “the finger” is commonly known as an insult and not an indication that a person is in trouble. As a result, giving a police officer the finger is not a “legitimate reason for arrest.”
Insulting a Cop Can Still Have Consequences
While flipping off a police officer may not be grounds for an arrest, you can be certain that the officer you’ve targeted will make sure that there are other consequences. The officer can issue a citation for any traffic law that you’ve violated. If they suspect that you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, you could face DUI charges and even have your car searched. If the officer finds any illegal contraband in your vehicle, the consequences of your actions could be substantial. What started out as a freedom of expression could snowball into a nightmare of consequences.
Be Smart When Interacting With Police
While you have the freedom to express yourself, think twice before making a rude gesture in the direction of a Los Angeles police officer. While the finger is not grounds for an arrest, the officer may find another reason to charge you with a crime.
If you are facing criminal charges in Los Angeles your future is at risk. The best thing you can do to protect your future is speak with an experienced Los Angeles criminal defense attorney. Contact the Rodriguez Law Group today to request a free consultation. We will review your case, explain your rights, and assess the strength of any defenses you may have.
The Rodriguez Law Group
626 Wilshire Blvd Suite 460
Los Angeles, CA 90017