After receiving a ticket, many of us would like to curse at an officer. But, most of us hold our tongue for fear of “rocking the boat.” One Georgia man didn’t hold his tongue when his daughter was cited for improper use of a seat belt, and he was arrested for it. But, both the District Court and federal Court of Appeals who heard his case determined his arrest was unjustified. The rulings provide a look at just what is protected under the First Amendment and when the police can arrest you for nothing more than words.
According to the Macon Telegraph, Lawrence Merenda saw his daughter being ticketed in her vehicle outside of his workplace. He approached then Georgia State Patrol trooper Justin Tabor and asked him to give the girl a break. The officer responded that she was wearing her seatbelt improperly and he wouldn’t cut her any slack.
According to the lawsuit that Merenda later filed against the officer, he said, “Well, you being a parent, you should understand having a seat belt on like that, you can get thrown out of a car. But, if you are OK with her head getting smashed against the steering wheel as a parent, that’s up to you.”
After asking if the ticket was justified, Merenda turned to leave and called Tabor a curse word. It was then that the officer cuffed Merenda, charging him with felony obstruction of an officer.
The charge against Merenda was dropped, but he filed a lawsuit alleging his rights were violated.
The U.S. District Court ruled in his favor, finding he didn’t use “fighting words” and his arrest was unjustified. Following an appeal from Tabor, the 11th Ciorcuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling.
Fighting words are those words that are used to elicit a response, words that you know will get under someone’s skin so badly, it will trigger a fight or altercation. In situations where fighting words are used, they can offer some justification for an arrest. But a simple curse word doesn’t qualify.
Does this mean you can go up to an officer and call him the curse word of your choice? We wouldn’t recommend it. While the charges would likely be dropped, calling out the wrong officer on the wrong day will get you arrested. However, a police officer does have to have probable cause that you committed a crime in order to make that arrest. So, if his arrest is unjustified the criminal charges against you won’t likely stick.
Cops can take relatively minor disagreements and turn them into disorderly conduct. They can take your questioning their judgment and call it obstruction. This, however, doesn’t mean you are guilty of that crime.
If you are charged with an offense like disorderly conduct in the state of Georgia, we may be able to help. Contact our offices today.