2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Holds Giving a Police Officer the Finger is Not Valid Basis for a Traffic Stop

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Judge Jon O. Newman, writing for a unanimous panel, found that mild-mannered John Swartz did not provide a basis for a traffic stop when he flipped off New York cop Richard Insogna. A little backstory: John and his wife Judy Mayton-Swartz were driving down the highway when John spotted Officer Insogna using a radar gun to tag motorists. John, the passenger in this car, displeased with Officer Insogna’s speed trap, extended his arm out the window of the car and saluted Officer Insogna with one finger. The Court provides a nice little footnote to the history of the middle finger and even a nod to American University Professor of Law Ira Robbins’ article, Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law.

Officer Insogna gave chase and stopped John and Judy in front of their son’s house, ultimately arresting John for disorderly conduct because he may have heard John call himself “an asshole.” John’s criminal case was dismissed based on speedy trial grounds but John responded with a civil rights suit against Officer Insogna.

At deposition, Officer Insogna maintained that after he saw John give him the finger, he decided to follow the car “to initiate a stop on it.” As reasons he stated: (1) John’s gesture “appeared to me he was trying to get my attention for some reason,” (2) “I thought that maybe there could be a problem in the car. I just wanted to assure the safety of the passengers,” and (3) “I was concerned for the female driver, if there was a domestic dispute.” With raised-eyebrows, Judge Newman disposed of Officer Insogna’s dubious testimony, offering this interpretation:

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 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.

Even Aristophanes would have to be proud.

Read the opinion Swartz v. Insogna (2d Cir. Ct. of App. 2013) Docket No. 11-2846-CV.

Read Ira P. Robbins, Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law, 41 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 1403 (2008).

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