Free Speech

North Carolina Supreme Court: Flipping Off Cop Did Not Justify Traffic Stop

A state trooper believed a man driving by and flipping the bird at the cops constituted disorderly conduct. (It didn't.)

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Thankfully, flipping off a police officer while driving is not enough of a justification for them to pull you over.

On January 9, 2017, Paul Stevens, a trooper for North Carolina State Highway Patrol, and Adam Torres, an officer with Albemarle Police Department, were helping a stranded motorist in Stanly County. Their patrol lights were activated at the scene. While providing assistance, Stevens observed Shawn Patrick Ellis, a passenger in a passing car, waving his arm out of the window and then pumping his middle finger in an up-and-down motion. Believing Ellis was engaged in disorderly conduct, Stevens pursued the car and pulled it over. At no point did the driver break a traffic law during the half-mile pursuit.

When Stevens approached the car, both the driver and Ellis initially refused to show their identification. The driver changed her mind and complied. Ellis continued to refuse, prompting Stevens to take him back to his patrol vehicle. After Ellis finally gave his name and date of birth, Stevens cited him for resisting, delaying, or obstructing an officer.

While on trial for obstruction, Ellis attempted to file a motion to suppress evidence—Stevens' testimony of the events—based on the fact that Stevens did not have reasonable justification to make the stop in the first place. The trial court denied the motion.

The matter was then taken to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The appellate court ruled in August 2019 that Stevens had "reasonable suspicion" of disorderly conduct to make the stop and that "it was not obvious to the trooper that Defendant was simply engaging in free speech toward him when he was gesturing out of his vehicle window."

The majority also found Stevens "justified in further detaining" Ellis because he had initially refused to identify himself.

Judge John Arrowood dissented, commenting that Ellis' actions were "distasteful" yet "within the realm of protected speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution." Arrowood used Stevens' own account of Ellis waving a hand and flipping the bird, and the fact that Stevens was the only person to provide testimony, to argue that the stop lacked reasonable justification.

On Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's decision, explaining that the facts of the case were "insufficient to provide reasonable suspicion that [Ellis] was engaged in disorderly conduct:"

The fact that Trooper Stevens was unsure of whether defendant's gesture may have been directed at another vehicle does not, on its own, provide reasonable suspicion that defendant intended to or was plainly likely to provoke violent retaliation from another driver. Likewise, the mere fact that defendant's gesture changed from waving to "flipping the bird" is insufficient to conclude defendant's conduct was likely to cause a breach of the peace.

In a footnote, the Court said it would not address the application of the First Amendment in the case because "there was no reasonable suspicion for the stop."

Cops pulling drivers over for raunchy expression is not new. But if you're going to take the risk, courts have already ruled in favor of the following behaviors: Flashing your headlights to warn of speed traps up ahead; playing NWA's "Fuck tha Police" in the presence of an officer; and proudly displaying an "I Eat Ass" bumper sticker.

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  2. “Thankfully, flipping off a police officer while driving is not enough of a justification for them to pull you over.”

    Does Reason support that view if one does that to ALL drivers going by ?

    1. I don’t know if Reason does but I certainly would stand by the view. There’s no physical violence or even implied threat.

    2. what if nobody takes offense?

      1. What if nobody even notices?

      2. Ya. Who hasn’t been flipped off before? This cop needs to grow up and realize the law doesn’t protect his feefees.

  3. Gavin Newsom being compared to hitler in protest at state capitol. Sweet.

    1. Needs to work on his ‘stache.

  4. Thankfully, flipping off a police officer while driving is not enough of a justification for them to pull you over.

    But is it enough of a “justification” for them to blow you away?

  5. Any cop will cite you for flipping them the bird as long as they are not punished. Even if the charges are dismissed, the process is the punishment.

    1. Wasn’t it Scalia who made it clear that as long as a cop “thinks” what you’re doing is a crime, then can arrest you and hold you indefinitely?

      1. Thankfully Fat Tony Scalia’s lack of impulse control gave him landwhale levels of obesity, which resulted in a bad case of not being alive any more.

        It’s just sad that his death was relatively painless: for BlackRobe lickspittles who think that actual innocence is not grounds for appeal, a karmically-appropriate death would involve of some form of haemorrhagic fever that makes them shit out their own entrails.

  6. Thankfully, flipping off a police officer while driving is not enough of a justification for them to pull you over.

    Um, did you not read your own article? It most certainly is! The court merely said it shouldn’t have been. And unless I missed the part where the officer was fired, arrested, or otherwise punished for doing what he had no authority to do, there’s no incentive not to do it again. “You might beat the rap but you won’t beat the ride” is a common saying for a reason, the kings men know they’ve been given a nod-and-a-wink from the courts to dish out a little curbside justice to any peasants getting uppity and forgetting their place.

    1. “You’re number one! You’re number one!”

      1. Huh. Threading is hard.

    2. Just pis in the pigmobile.

  7. The State of North Carolina agreed with the result. There was no dispute in the NC Supreme Court that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion. This is not new law.

    1. And yet the officer will face no discipline and the victim will receive no compensation for time spent in jail and/or in court.

  8. Most disorderly conduct laws require that the action incite an immediate breach of the peace. Cops aren’t supposed to go around getting into fights because someone flipped them off or cursed them.

    1. Police misuse disorderly/obstruction laws all the time. They are broad enough in most jurisdictions that the police can avoid getting sued under them is you so much as hesitate to comply. Granted, the frivolity of the application depends on the cop’s on conscience, and I don’t think most would even follow this cop’s lead (laud to the Monroe County LEOs who actually objected to such a law on the books), but the system in place has practically no check on it in many states. The cop in this article won’t get in trouble. If he does it again, despite this ruling, he probably STILL won’t get in trouble… or he’ll be more careful to lie about another violation.

  9. This is just a hunch but I’m sure Sevo has a sticker on the side of his shopping cart that says “I Eat Ass”.

    1. He stole it from you, fucktard.

      1. So it’s true, you’ve seen it! Maybe he’ll let you borrow it.

        1. The shopping cart? I hope you apply hand sanitizer before using.

    2. So what? Sevo grew up during a time when donkey meat was the only source of protein for many struggling families.

  10. “…courts have already ruled in favor of the following behaviors: Flashing your headlights to warn of speed traps up ahead; playing NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” in the presence of an officer; and proudly displaying an “I Eat Ass” bumper sticker.”

    Yeah, but just because you can, does not mean you should. These court protected rights are obviously perverted justice and an exploitation of our constitutional 1st amendment protections. No rights are absolute.
    Amirite, copsuckers?

    Can I get an “A-men?”

  11. It has been fully established, many times, that cops aren’t supposed to cite people for flipping them off or filming them. Yet the cops still do it routinely because nothing happens to them while the target of their malice gets put through the wringer. To say law enforcement enforces the law is a joke. They enforce their will. Do as they say or else.

  12. Meanwhile, in the real world, if you are so inclined as to flip the bird at a cop, you can expect them to cite you for something, anything, whether you were guilty of not. If you’re lucky.

  13. Waved at CHP officer while he was ticketing someone. He finished the ticket quite quickly and took off after me. Ticketed me for “estimated speed” ticket. Ticket thrown out on appeal. Not new behavior as this happened in 2007.

  14. Now that we all know how to trigger these bad cops, it should be simple to get a bad one to follow you right into an ambush where he can be held accountable for forsaking his oath.

    Because if the cop is legit, he won’t follow you.

    Just be sure to steal a license plate from your HOA president to put on your car before you troll for bad pigs.

  15. While on trial for obstruction, Ellis attempted to file a motion to suppress evidence—Stevens’ testimony of the events—based on the fact that Stevens did not have reasonable justification to make the stop in the first place. The trial court denied the motion.

    The matter was then taken to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The appellate court ruled in August 2019 that Stevens had “reasonable suspicion” of disorderly conduct to make the stop and that “it was not obvious to the trooper that Defendant was simply engaging in free speech toward him when he was gesturing out of his vehicle window.”

    These two paragraphs are a testament to the quality of lower court judges.

    1. More like the absurd breadth of disorderly conduct statutes. I mean, I guess the supreme court agrees with you, but applications of this ilk are not uncommon nation-wide. It’s just rare people spend the time and money to push it.

  16. Very nice article, have a great knowledge

  17. So it seems that ample courts have ruled that disrespecting officers by many different means is quite constitutional, and officers violating citizens rights to expression is unlawful.

    What will it take for police to finally get the message?
    Seems like the only thing that will get through to them will be flipping the bird to every officer all of the time.

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