Content Regulation / Censorship, Gender Expression, Indecency / Obscenity
The State v. Momar Sowe and Alieu Sarr
On Appeal Expands Expression
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The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision holding that a police officer violated the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of a woman he pulled over and to whom he issued a speeding ticket, after she raised her middle finger at him. The police officer initially pulled the plaintiff over for speeding but issued her a ticket for a lesser offense. She subsequently gave him the finger, instigating him to pull her over again and give her a speeding ticket for the original offense. The Court found that the gesture of raising a middle finger is protected conduct according to established case law. Further, the gesture did not justify the second stop or warrant a speeding violation, and such adverse actions on behalf of the police could have a potential chilling effect on the woman’s future conduct. The Court also denied the police officer’s defence of qualified immunity since the actions under scrutiny were an infringement of clearly established constitutional rights.
On April 29, 2019, Matthew Minard submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari to have the case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plaintiff, Debra Cruise-Gulyas, was pulled over by the defendant police officer, Matthew Minard, for speeding. The defendant, being lenient, wrote a ticket for a lesser offence, that of non-moving violation. Subsequently, as the plaintiff drove away she made a gesture by raising middle finger at the defendant, upon which the defendant pulled her over again and amended the original ticket to a speeding violation, a higher offence.
The plaintiff sued the defendant arguing that there was no probable cause for the second stop which was a violation of her Fourth Amendment rights, the retaliation for her gesture was a violation of her First Amendment rights and that the episode violated her liberty in violation of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The defendant argued that the second stop was merely a continuation of the first one and hence the ticket was raised for the initial speeding itself. Further, he raised the defence of qualified immunity which protects police officers from any “personal liability unless they violate a person’s clearly established constitutional or statutory rights” [p. 2].
The District Court denied the defendant’s Civil Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on pleadings and ruled in favour of the plaintiff. The defendant then appealed the case to the circuit court.
Judge Sutton wrote the opinion of the court for the three-judge bench. The central issue before the court was whether the rights asserted by the plaintiff have been violated, and if yes whether the defendant is protected by the defence of qualified immunity.
The plaintiff sued the defendant claiming violation of her constitutional rights on three counts for stopping her the second time. First, that it amounted to unreasonable seizure and violated Fourth Amendment. Second, that it amounted to a violation of First Amendment since she was stopped for making a gesture which is protected expression. Third, that it amounted to a violation of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as it restricted her liberty.
In response, the defendant raised the defence of qualified immunity arguing that even assuming he violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights, “those rights were not clearly established” [p. 2].
The court held in favour of the plaintiff on all three grounds.On the first ground, the court held that to justify the second stop under Fourth Amendment, the defendant needed “probable cause” that the plaintiff “had committed a civil traffic violation” [p. 3]. The court deemed that the second stop was completely independent of the first one, and there was no other potential basis for the same apart from the gesture by the plaintiff. The court relied on decisions such as that of Wilson v Martin to hold that the “gesture did not violate any identifiable law” [p. 3]. Accordingly, the defendant violated plaintiff’s Fourth Amendment rights. On the second ground, the court held that the gesture was a protected conduct under the First Amendment based on established case law (see Sandul v. Larion and Cohen v. California). Further, the defendant’s unjustified reaction in stopping the plaintiff a second time, could have a potential chilling effect on her conduct going forward. Finally, on the last ground, that of the due process clause, since the defendant did not raise any arguments different from those on the first two grounds, the court did not treat it differently from the other two claims.
The court affirmed the District Court’s decision of denying the defendant’s Civil Rule 12(c) motion.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The ruling expands expression upholding existing case law which protects expressive conduct, even if rude or offensive.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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