January 3, 2013
Second Circuit on Middle Finger
Although the Second Circuit panel opinion in Swartz v. Insogna does not refer to the First Amendment, the court implicitly relies on free expression principles to reverse the district judge and allow the plaintiffs' civil rights action against two law enforcement officers to proceed.
As Judge Jon Newman, writing the unanimous opinion, explained, the case began as the result of an "irate automobile passenger's act of 'giving the finger,' a gesture of insult known for centuries, to a policeman," prompted by the officer's use of a radar device. Although the plaintiffs' car was not speeding, the officer followed the car and initiated a "traffic stop." Mr. Swartz was subsequently arrested for disorderly conduct (seemingly because of a statement describing himself in unflattering terms) and made three court appearances before the charges were ultimately dismissed on speedy trial grounds.
At issue was whether the original stop was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. But underlying this determination depended on the meaning of the "middle finger" expression. As Judge Newman wrote:
Perhaps there is a police officer somewhere who would interpret an automobile passenger’s giving him the finger as a signal of distress, creating a suspicion that something occurring in the automobile warranted investigation. And perhaps that interpretation is what prompted [Officer] Insogna to act, as he claims. But the nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult deprives such an interpretation of reasonableness. This ancient gesture of insult is not the basis for a reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation or impending criminal activity. Surely no passenger planning some wrongful conduct toward another occupant of an automobile would call attention to himself by giving the finger to a police officer. And if there might be an automobile passenger somewhere who will give the finger to a police officer as an ill-advised signal for help, it is far more consistent with all citizens’ protection against improper police apprehension to leave that highly unlikely signal without a response than to lend judicial approval to the stopping of every vehicle from which a passenger makes that gesture.
Judge Newman cites LawProf Ira Robbin's wonderful 2008 article, Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law, published in the UC Davis Law Review and available on ssrn. While the citation is to Robbins' discussion of the first recorded use of the gesture in the United States in 1886 (hint: think baseball), Judge Newman's opinion does seem influenced by Robbins' article, which extensively discusses the First Amendment aspects of the gesture and their relationship to criminal justice.
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