N.C. Supreme Court reverses appeals court decision on middle finger

After a North Carolina appeals court ruled that a state trooper was not in the wrong when he chased down a vehicle after the driver flashed his middle finger to the officer in Stanly County, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the decision.

The appeals court originally ruled last August that there was no legal error in charging the driver, Shawn Patrick Ellis, with delaying Trooper Paul Stevens during a traffic stop.

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

But in the case State of North Carolina v. Shawn Patrick Ellis, the NC Supreme Court, in an opinion filed on May 1, found that “there was no reasonable suspicion of disorderly conduct to justify Trooper Stevens’ stop, and it was error for the trial court to deny defendant’s motion to suppress.”

“We reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the Court of Appeals for further remand to the trial court for further proceedings not inconsistent with our decision,” the court stated.

According to facts provided in the case, after Ellis flashed his middle finger, Stevens pursued the vehicle, a small white SUV, for about a half a mile before pulling it over. Ellis, who was the passenger, eventually proved his name and date of birth and was issued a citation for resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer under North Carolina General Statutes.

The incident occurred on Jan. 9, 2017.