Court rules in favor of Trooper who charged man over middle-finger

Published 2:37 pm Wednesday, August 7, 2019

On Tuesday, a North Carolina appeals court said a state trooper was not in the wrong when he chased and stopped a vehicle after the driver flashed his middle-finger to the officer in Stanly County. 

The court ruled there was no legal error in charging the driver, Shawn Patrick Ellis, with delaying the trooper during a traffic stop. Initially, Ellis refused to provide identification and argued in court that the traffic stop was illegal. 

While Ellis’ gesture would be considered free speech, the officer had reason to suspect the driver was committing the crime of disorderly conduct, Judge Chris Dillon wrote. He wrote it is illegal to make gestures intended to provoke violent retaliation and cause a breach of the peace. 

Albemarle Police Chief David Dulin said he has been involved in a similar situation. He said he stopped a man for doing the same thing as he was driving by. While he did not charge the man, Dulin said he discouraged him from making those gestures toward police officers. 

“I don’t think people should be going around flipping their middle finger off at anybody,” Dulin said. 

Dulin said there have been many instances in Albemarle where people say or do offensive things toward officers. In most cases, those who do are not charged, but Dulin said every situation is different. 

“We know to not take things personal,” Dulin said. “We’re here to do the duty that we have, and that we’re sworn to uphold. We’re just trying to do what’s right.” 

In March, there was a similar case in Michigan where a woman was pulled over for a non-moving violation. After the officer handed her a citation, she held up her middle finger out the window as she drove off. The officer then pulled her over a second time and upgraded the ticket to a moving violation. 

In an article from the Washington Post, the woman called the citation “a bunch of B.S.” She later sued the officer, alleging violations of her First Amendment right to free speech and her Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

In this case, the judge ruled in favor of the woman, stating the gesture was her constitutional right. He said the only situation where police have the authority to pursue someone for a gesture like that is if there are other people present. If others are around, an officer could consider an obscene act an attempt to breach the peace. 

Contact Evan Moore at 704-982-0816.