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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

N.C. Court blows the mulligan

I was right that the withdrawal of the original opinion in the "flip-off-the-cop" case could have been for the majority to find a new basis to justify the traffic stop without having to accept that flipping the officer off was constitutionally protected. Which it did, although now with a dissent.

The court does recognize case law (it somehow missed the first time around) that the finger is protected and less likely to constitute fighting words when directed at an officer. But the  majority offers a new theory: The officer could not tell who the defendant was flipping-off: the officer (which would be constitutionally protected speech) or another driver (which somehow would not be; if the latter, the officer could have believed that the situation between the defendant and the other driver was "escalating" and, if left unchecked, might have become disorderly conduct. Importantly, the officer needed only reasonable suspicion, not probable cause, to make the initial stop and determine if the defendant was trying to provoke another motorist.

The dissent calls out the majority for, essentially, making up facts. The officer testified that he saw the driver wave at him, then turn the wave into the middle finger directed at him; there was no testimony about the situation escalating or about concern for a gesture at another car. The dissent insists that flipping a middle finger is protected by the First Amendment and thus cannot provide reasonable suspicion. Although he does not say it, that should be true regardless of at whom the gesture was directed.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on August 20, 2019 at 01:51 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman, Judicial Process, Law and Politics | Permalink

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