A Vietnam veteran and retired airline pilot arrested after giving the finger to a police officer can sue police for malicious prosecution, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday as it reversed a lower-court judge who found the actions of officers reasonable.
The appeals court ruled that the “nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult deprives such an interpretation of reasonableness.”
CBS reports the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals noted that the act of giving the finger was “a gesture of insult known for centuries” and restored the claim brought by John Swartz and his wife after their May 2006 encounter with police as they drove through the upstate New York village of St. Johnsville, 50 miles west of Albany.
Swartz was arrested after he reached his arm out the passenger side of a vehicle and over its roof and gave the finger to a local police officer after he saw the officer using a radar detector. Swartz and his wife, who were not speeding or committing any other traffic violation, then continued to the home of the wife’s son. Once there, they got out of the car, and a police car arrived, its lights flashing, the appeals court said.
While the disorderly conduct charge filed against Swartz was ultimately dropped, he still sued the officers for his arrest.
A federal judge ruled in favor of the officers in 2011 but the appeals court erased that decision Thursday and remanded the case back to the lower court.
The officer who stopped Swartz in 2006 said he thought the man was using his middle to finger to get his attention. But the appeals court didn’t buy it, saying the “nearly universal recognition that this gesture is an insult deprives such an interpretation of reasonableness.”
Swartz’s lawyer, Elmer Robert Keach III, went so far as to call Thursday’s ruling an “important victory for civil rights.” He told local reporters, “It reaffirms that just because you insult a police officer doesn’t give that police officer the right to detain you or arrest you and take away your liberty.”