‘It comes down to respect’

Bird-flipping is legal, but it’s still not nice

Presque Isle County Sergeant David Whitford checks his notes outside a vehicle, Sunday. Most drivers, in most cases, handle traffic stops with civility, Whitford said.

ALPENA — Rudeness, even toward a police officer who just gave you a break, is protected by the First Amendment, according to a U.S. Court of Appeals.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the ancient gesture of “flipping the bird” is a legal form of expression, stating that a Michigan woman’s constitutional rights were violated when she was pulled over and ticketed after extending a carefully-selected digit toward an officer.

In June of 2017, Officer Matthew Minard of Taylor, Mich., pulled over Debra Cruise-Gulyas for speeding. Showing leniency, the officer wrote her a ticket for a lesser offense.

As she was pulling away from the scene, the unappreciative driver “made an all-too-familiar gesture at Minard with her hand and without four of her fingers showing,” according to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit opinion filed March 13.

The officer, reacting to the gesture, pulled Cruise-Gulyas over again and adjusted her ticket to a more serious speeding violation.

The driver, in turn, brought a lawsuit against Minard for violating her First and Fourth Amendment rights to freedom of speech and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. She contended that the officer had no reason to pull her over a second time, as she had committed no crime.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals, who, in the end, agreed with Cruise-Gulyas: it’s legal to be rude.

There’s nothing in the state law that prohibits rude gestures being made toward police officers, Lt. Eric Hamp of the Alpena City Police confirmed. City officers are regularly confronted by unhappy residents expressing their dissatisfaction in ways that are less than polite.

Last week’s one-finger-salute ruling, while reinforcing the quintessential American value of freedom of speech, is not a free pass to be as rude as you’d like, Hamp said. While the particular hand gesture in the story is not illegal by itself, there’s a fine line between constitutionally-protected rudeness and disorderly conduct.

In this particular case, Hamp explained, the driver seems to have limited her expressiveness to a crude gesture. However, it may not have take much more than that to justify a traffic stop. If, for example, she had rolled her window down and started swearing or creating a disturbance in public, the court’s decision may well have been different.

“Each case is very unique,” Hamp said. “Just a few factors one way or the other could have definitely changed the ruling of the court.”

Disorderly conduct laws allow law enforcement to protect the community from people whose public behavior is disruptive or offensive. Disorderly conduct stops in Alpena do happen, Hamp said, often involving people who are drinking or under the influence of drugs.

When you’re out in public, walking down the sidewalk or on a public beach, Hamp said, “you don’t just have the freedom to say and do whatever you want to do.”

Nobody is immune to an emotional reaction to insults or degrading behavior, not even those in uniform. However, officers are tasked to respond with a level head, even when being treated with incivility.

“We have a job and a responsibility to be able to withstand that and to not act out simply because people are being disrespectful or saying ignorant things toward law enforcement,” Hamp said.

While any officer anywhere is going to be confronted by those who choose to be rude, Hamp feels that overall his department has a great relationship with Alpena residents.

“You always have that percentage of the population that’s challenging,” Hamp said, “but overwhelmingly we have a supportive community for law enforcement.”

The bottom line is, it comes down to respect, Hamp said.

“Our officers are top-notch and respectful toward the public, and we expect that back,” Hamp said. “And I can say without a doubt that we get that from most people, which is nice. Because it’s not like that everywhere, I can tell you that.”