By H. Michael Steinberg Colorado Criminal Defense Lawyer
While it may not make good common sense to flip off a police officer or use profanity when he or she is deciding whether to cite you with a traffic offense or to arrest you for a crime that is – well “arrestable” or not depending on the officer’s discretion — it is clear in Colorado that the US and Colorado versions of the First Amendment’s protection for free speech are alive and well.
Two recent Colorado cases have resulted in dismissals and large monetary awards after police officers made arrests in response to being fliped off or being sworn at by Colorado citizens.
Swearing at or flipping off a police officer is rude, but it’s speech that’s protected by the First Amendment. Again flipping off a police officer or shouting vulgarities at a cop is never appropriate, but these acts are technically legal in Colorado.
Two cases in the metro area demonstrate the extent of the First Amendment in this context.
Bob McIntosh, a Colorado citizen, received a $20,000 settlement from Boulder County over his arrest. He was pulled over for going 41 mph in a 20 mph school zone and used profanity at Deputy Sheriff Tim Lynch because of the speeding ticket.
McIntosh repeatedly swore at the deputy and called him a vulgar name and the deputy told him if he didn’t control his language he would be arrested. McIntosh was arrested and charged with disobeying a police officer. The charge was later dropped.
The settlement reflected a decision by the Boulder County government to pay the large fee because he had indicated that he would sue under a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that has held that verbal criticism of a police officer is protected speech and McIntosh’s arrest on that charge was a violation of the First Amendment.
Similarly, several months ago prosecutors dismissed a case against Shane Boor, a man who flipped off a state trooper on C-470 near West Bowles Avenue in Jefferson County because his actions are protected under the Constitution.
H. Michael’s Take
The police deserve our respect and our good manners unless they give a good reason for us to act otherwise. They have difficult and dangerous jobs and – if that is not reason enough to be polite – they have, on the street at least – tremendous power and discretion.
All cases do not resolve as the above cases would make it seem. If you are wronged by the police — physically cooperate during the arrest — do NOT make any statements other than identifying yourself and providing insurance and registration if it is a traffic stop — and don’t – contrary to the two individuals above – exercise your right to flip them off or swear at the.
It just makes common sense to take this course of action as a human being with inherent dignity and class. If you wish to complain about the officer – file a formal complaint with his or her police department.