New Jersey Man Sues Over Arrest For Flipping The Bird At Police Officers

Robert Bell is fighting for a quintessential expression of free speech in New York and New Jersey — he was arrested for flipping the bird at police officers. We have seen such cases in other states where officers have arrested citizens for this vulgar but protected form of speech. After Bell was charged with disorderly conduct for making an “obscene gesture” and causing public alarm and annoyance, the charges were dropped. He then sued. As in so many other cases of abusive arrests, there is no record of any discipline taken against the officers who made the groundless arrest. The lack of discipline allows some officers to carry out baseless arrests with the knowledge that the citizen will be punished by the inconvenience of going to jail or to court or both — with the added need of securing an attorney.

Bell, 26, was leaving the Slaughtered Lamb Pub on West 4th Street last August when he flipped his middle finger for “one to two seconds” after a group of officers passed him in the night. An officer was trailing behind and saw the gesture — arresting Bell, who was required to plead not guilty and prepare for a trial before the case was dismissed. He explained that he made the gesture “Because I don’t like cops.”

Citizens have continued to win damages in such cases, but police continue to abuse their authority in arresting people for making vulgar statements or gestures toward them. I find the gestures to be personally obnoxious, disrespectful, and juvenile. However, it is also clearly protected. Abusive arrests designed to curtail free speech should be a priority for the city to deter among its officers. The only deterrence is to show that officers who arrest people for the exercise of free speech will be disciplined and put through additional training. Instead, prosecutors in this case appear to have allowed this case to be docketed and prepared for trial.

Source: N.Y. Magazine

23 thoughts on “New Jersey Man Sues Over Arrest For Flipping The Bird At Police Officers”

  1. The Circuit Court judge didn’t confirm the guilty verdict. The disposition was “case transferred/returned to municipal court.” I sent an email to the assistant city prosecutor asking for a return of the fees. She said, the original guilty verdict still stands. We had to use the fees to pay for the appeal.

  2. I had a disorderly conduct citation sent to my house in the mail from a municipality in a different county. And I didn’t even do anything.

    I had to go to court three times . They fined me $429.00. Then they told me I had to pay a total of $807.00 or they weren’t going to process the appeal. I said the judge can’t arbitrarily increase the fine. The clerk said yes he can, he has that discretion. And you have to pay it in person. So I had to drive in there and give them another check for $378.00.

    Then they tried to get me for travel expenses. I beat that. Got a refund for $61.00.

  3. In Indiana there was – and may still be – a law against provocation. It was often cited as the reason for arresting people who displayed their middle fingers to cops. Provocation was any statement, gesture, or action intended to tempt a law-abiding citizen into committing a crime.

    My neighbor in Indiana had a cop as a son-in-law and a precinct committeeman as a relative. He insisted no one park in front of his house or walk his driveway from the curb to the sidewalk. There was no law against either – no resident permit parking.

    I once came home to find my aunt and brother parked in front of my house, so I parked in front of the neighbor’s. As my six-year-old son and I walked past his house, the neighbor and wife came out screaming at me. The neighbor yelled, “Come up on my porch, and I’ll kick your ass.” His wife gave me the bird. I ignored them.

    About 20 minutes later, two cops made me come out and sit in the back of their squad car. They asked what was my motive for parking where I did. They asked me to move my car. They told me they couldn’t guarantee its safety where it was. Knowing that one cop was my neighbor’s son-in-law, I asked to be cited for spiteful parking or whatever law I’d broken. They “let me go with a warning.”

    Subsequently, I was sent a summons to meet with our city’s Deputy County Prosecutor. I called and told her I didn’t want to take vacation to meet her. I could meet her at 5:30 PM. She threatened to have me arrested. I promised to have TV cameras present. I called the Chief Deputy County Prosecutor in the County Seat. He agreed to the 5:30 PM time frame and gave me an appointment to see him the next day after my 5:30 appointment with his subordinate.

    My local prosecutor harangued me about malicious parking and promised not to prosecute me if I apologized. I suggested she do that, so that county voters could see an example of a prosecutor with too much time on her hands.

    Her subordinate followed me into the hall and told me to charge the couple with provocation, officially by police report, or the Chief Deputy Prosecutor would have no leverage.

    I saw a Police Shift Commander whose workers comp claim I’d handled. He took my statement and told me he commands the cops who rousted me. He reluctantly offered to take a formal discipline complaint. He seemed quite relieved when I said I’d trust him to talk to his men without the need for a formal reply.

    The next day, the Chief Deputy Prosecutor had my provocation charge by the time of our meeting. He asked if I’d put my six-year-old son through a trial. I said, “It doesn’t matter, because you won’t prosecute.” Asked what I really wanted, I said that I wanted his Deputy Prosecutor reminded of her priorities, and I wanted my neighbor summoned to meet with the Chief Deputy Prosecutor. I wanted my neighbor told that he and his wife had been charged with provocation but wouldn’t be prosecuted if they agreed to stop claiming property rights to the middle of the street. He agreed.

    The Chief Deputy Prosecutor sent me a copy of the summons. Later he called me to summarize his meeting. The neighbor minded his own business thereafter.

  4. No different then med malpractice, legal malpractice etc, the person injured rarely gets compensated or given the help they need to be made whole while the lawyers, dostors, cops, circle their wagons, no discipline, no punishment, sometimes no acknowledgement that what they did was wrong. Just like dogs and little kids, don;t discipline etc and they continue to practice their bad behavior.

  5. I like Magginkat’s solution. I have always thought that the best justice would be to hold the LEO and the prosecutor personally/financially responsible for egregious prosecution. Perhaps they would think twice before leveling such charges. I also agree with rafflaw…’contempt of cop’…from all I have seen, most cops are indeed contemptible!

  6. This citizen was guilty of Contempt of Cop and is fortunate he wasn’t searched and found with drugs or assaulted while being taken into custody for resisting arrest.

  7. The best way to stop the police from abusing their authority is not through additional training alone. It will only improve once the police departments and cities have no more money to pay out due to the large civil judgements against them due to the police abuse. When the money stops flowing from insurance companies and city coffers, the police may get the idea. Maybe then training might help.

  8. This kind of thing happens because there is a prevalent stupid idea among certain police departments that “respect for authority” is somehow a legally mandated phenomenon. They equate “disrespect for authority” with criminal behavior. In fact, there is no law against any kind of disrespect but if you commit something thought to be disrespect IN COURT you may be punished for contempt. And if, in court, you do something that does NOT equal disrespect, the judge may still call it contempt and punish you regardless of the actual quality of respect, disrespect or anything else that was actually involved. THAT is essentially disreputable on the part of the courts, and should lead to widespread knowledge that courts should have to do a much better job of being worthy of real respect — but alas…

    I believe, for instance, that George Zimmerman’s real problem with Trayvon Martin was that Martin did not acknowledge Zimmerman’s presumptive AUTHORITY. (Of course he had none.)

    I also believe Judge Lester was offended by Zimmerman’s (and his wife’s) disrespect of Judge LESTER’S authority — they appeared to believe that Lester was REQUIRED to take their word for whatever they said and he failed to do so.

    Anyway, FWIW…

  9. I would not ground the lawsuit for false arrest on the gesture of the finger being protected speech, rather I would ground it on no probable cause that a crime had been committed. Fourth, Fifth, Fourteenth Amendments. The plaintiff is on the edge of endangering the First Amendment when he does not need to invoke it. What if he showed his butt and farted? Free Speech? What if he displayed a tatoo with the First Amendment recited in the tatoo? Probably free speech. Tatoo with the Fourth Amendment recited? Better argument for lack of probable cause to arrest and better argument for free speech.

    I would depose the cop and the prosecutor. Ask them what was offensive about plaintiff’s middle finger. Ask them what is offensive about their own middle finger. The prosecutor is on the edge of being outside the protection of his prosecutorial immunity. Google: The Judge’s Trials–Nurnberg.

    People in that town need to get stickers with the middle finger displayed and paste those stickers on the outhouse walls in the courthouse. Attach them whereever there is a city sign posted telling you not to do something like park in the prosecutor’s parking space at the courthouse. 3″ x 3″ is about right. Been there, done that.

    If you are a neighbor of the prosecutor have the dog pack poop in his yard. Not the cop’s yard, he will shoot dogs. Many do.

  10. Perhaps if the police officers & prosecutors had to repay the court costs, etc. when they write these bogus tickets they would think twice before proceeding. Why should taxpayers have to eat these costs for police bullying?

  11. “The lack of discipline allows some officers to carry out baseless arrests with the knowledge that the citizen will be punished by the inconvenience of going to jail or to court or both — with the added need of securing an attorney.”
    what vulgarity truly looks like….bad intent. I prefer vulgararity…and to that end I look fondly back at times that held the genteel promise of America and the truth of Freedoms un-oppressed by the dis-respect of those whose wants and angers drive their viscious fear laden behaviors …. I have no respect for the frightful bullying hoards…

  12. @Otteray “One partial solution is to start naming names publicly. ”

    That is one possible solution.

    But the article hints at another: ‘put through additional training’.

    In some kinds of cases I would like to see suspension of police power until retrained. After retraining the officer would give a review of what he or she did wrong, the proper way to handle the situation, and make a personal public commitment to follow law and policy in the future.

    I think there is at least a chance that approach would change officer behavior if not their attitudes.

  13. Excellent article. Our country is definitely a police negative . Once the police arrest, or give out a ticket, it lays a big burden on that person to prove their innocence. Our legislators are 99% to blame because they are the ones who run for office under “tough on crime” and secondly they demand a certain amount of revenue from each highway patrol, and third there is a big percentage of border line police/criminal cops out there.

  14. I might add that this is a conversation I have had repeatedly with my daughter as well as other new recruits. I never miss a chance to give them “the lecture.”

  15. One partial solution is to start naming names publicly. Name the officer and hold him or her up to public ridicule for being so thin skinned and ignorant of basic Constitutional rights. Same for the prosecutor. Blogs and bloggers have immense powers of persuasion. Our numbers are immense, and a couple of brief comments on a blog can fill up a supervisor’s email inbox and swamp their telephone system. Same with local media outlets, including both print and electronic. We have seen that repeatedly.

  16. You have to be kidding me….. I suppose when you put some ready reserves on the street….. They know what authority is……

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