6/4/2019Eighth Circuit Rules Cursing At A Traffic Cop Is Not a Crime
Yelling a two-word expletive at a traffic cop is protected free speech under an Eighth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruling.
Eric Roshaun Thurairajah was driving his 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt on Grand Avenue in Fort Smith, Arkansas, four years ago when he noticed a cop issuing a ticket to a minivan driver on the side of the road. So the man yelled an expletive at Trooper Lagarian Cross to let him know how he felt about what the officer was doing. On Monday, the Eighth Circuit US Court of Appeals ruled that dropping an F-bomb on a cop is protected free speech.
Trooper Cross claimed two kids in the van put their hands over their mouths in alarm at Thurairajah's naughty words, and that the profanity justified arresting Thurairajah for disorderly conduct. The incensed trooper then let the woman in the van go free so he could stop Thurairajah, who was immediately handcuffed and thrown in the back of a squad car. The man was taken to the Sebastian County Jail, where he spent eight hours in a filthy cell with an overflowing toilet. Thurairajah was not allowed to wear socks or shoes, even though everyone else in the cell with him had them on. On top of this, Thurairajah's Cobalt was impounded and he had to hire a lawyer to have the charges against him dropped.
Thurairajah is now seeking compensation through a federal lawsuit. The three-judge appellate panel decided the trooper cannot claim immunity for his conduct because it violated clearly established constitutional norms. The trooper was entirely wrong about the application of the disorderly conduct law, according to the unanimous three-judge panel.
"Under the statute, the verbal content of Thurairajah's yell is irrelevant," Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith wrote for the court. "The statute does not penalize offensive speech, only unreasonable or excessive noise."
The court rejected the trooper's attempt to claim the offensive phrase was so significant that it justified an arrest.
"Thurairajah's shout was unamplified and fleeting, no crowd gathered because of it, city traffic was not affected, no complaints were lodged by anyone in the community, business was not interrupted, nor were an officer's orders disobeyed," Judge Smith wrote.
The arrest, then, was in retaliation for the content of Thurairajah's speech.
"With limited exceptions not relevant here, even profanity is protected speech," Judge Smith explained. "Criticism of law enforcement officers, even with profanity, is protected speech."
As a result of Monday's ruling, Thurairajah can proceed with his lawsuit against Trooper Cross for both First and Fourth Amendment violations.
A copy of the ruling is available in a 100k PDF file at the source link below.