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Federal court says flipping off St. Johnsville officer doesn't justify arrest

January 4, 2013
Updated 12:36 p.m.
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— A Vietnam veteran and retired airline pilot arrested after giving the finger to a police officer can sue police for malicious prosecution, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday as it reversed a lower-court judge who found the actions of officers reasonable.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the act of giving the finger was "a gesture of insult known for centuries" and restored the claim brought by John Swartz and his wife after their May 2006 encounter with police as they drove through the upstate New York village of St. Johnsville, 50 miles west of Albany.

A lower-court judge in Albany had tossed out the couple's claim prior to trial after police maintained they stopped Swartz's car, which his wife was driving, because they feared the finger gesture was a sign of a domestic dispute.

The appeals court said such a conclusion was unreasonable given "the nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult." It pointed out in a footnote that Strepsiades was portrayed by Aristophanes as extending the middle finger to insult Aristotle and that the first recorded use of the gesture in the United States may have occurred in 1886, when a joint baseball team photograph of the Boston Beaneaters and the New York Giants showed a Boston pitcher giving the finger to the Giants.

"Indeed, such a gesture alone cannot establish probable cause to believe a disorderly conduct violation has occurred," the court said.

But the 2nd Circuit stopped short of saying Swartz's lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, was a sure winner. It noted that a defense of qualified immunity and the lawfulness of the arrest will "appropriately be in issue at trial."

A lawyer for the police officers who arrested Swartz did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Thursday.

Swartz's lawyer, Elmer Robert Keach III, praised the court's decision, calling it an "important victory for civil rights."

"It reaffirms that just because you insult a police officer doesn't give that police officer the right to detain you or arrest you and take away your liberty," he said.

Keach said Swartz was particularly upset because he was handcuffed and arrested in front of his grandchildren on Memorial Day.

Swartz was arrested after he reached his arm out the passenger side of a vehicle and over its roof and gave the finger to a local police officer after he saw the officer using a radar detector. Swartz and his wife, who were not speeding or committing any other traffic violation, then continued to the home of the wife's son. Once there, they got out of the car, and a police car arrived, its lights flashing, the appeals court said.

As Swartz walked to the car's trunk, he was ordered back in the car. He initially refused but later complied, the court said.

When an officer asked to see a driver's license and registration, Swartz told his wife not to show anything, prompting the officer to say, "Shut your mouth. Your ass is in enough trouble," the 2nd Circuit said.

After collecting the documents, the officer returned to his car and summoned backup, prompting three more officers to arrive at the scene. The officer then returned to the car, gave back the documents and told Swartz and his wife they could leave. Swartz got out of his car and asked to speak to the officer, but other officers blocked his path.

Swartz was arrested after he either muttered or shouted, depending upon who recalls the event, that he felt humiliated. A charge of disorderly conduct brought against him was dismissed.

 
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comments

January 4, 2013
5:50 a.m.
safny says...

Bravo. That cop should have been a bit more thick skinned.

January 4, 2013
7:11 a.m.
wmarincic says...

Great role model for your grandchildren. I know 2 different people exactly like him. One of their kids is in a long term rehab after getting released from jail and the other is in prison. No respect or common sense, the officer was doing his job and the judge that overturned it was an idiot.

January 4, 2013
12:42 p.m.
rswanker says...

Sorry, wmarincic, but I have to disagree. We still have a first amendment, as bruised and beaten as it may be.

Courts around the country have repeatedly found that behavior such as this, like it or not, is not sufficient grounds for detaining or arresting an individual. This fact is known to all truly professional police officers; its only the thin skinned ones (or those looking for an excuse to harass a citizen) who choose to ignore it.

The officer's statement backs this up. Who in a domestic dispute gives the finger to random passers-by and police officers, rather than the person they're arguing with? This is a weak excuse drummed up after the fact to rationalize an illegal arrest. Clearly the officer was *not* doing his job, and knew it.

January 4, 2013
5:05 p.m.
wmarincic says...

rswanker, you misunderstood me because I was not clear, I meant that the officer was doing his job by clocking speeders, I don't believe he should have arrested the guy, maybe told him he was setting a poor example to his grandkids. We also were not there, I would bet that once the police officer pulled up the guy was hostile and looking for a fight. The whole thing should never have happened and the guy who gave the finger is a moron.

January 9, 2013
11:59 a.m.
rswanker says...

wmarincic, I think I'd have to agree with most (all?) of that. :)

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