It should be pretty well established by now that you just can’t go around arresting people for expressing their displeasure with their fingers. It’s not like it’s a new issue or even an uncommon issue ([extremely laconic cowboy voice]: least not round these parts).
It’s something we’ve seen quite a bit of here at Techdirt.
What’s not quite as clear is whether or not warning other drivers of hidden cop cars is protected speech. (However, it is clear we’re interested in covering these discussions at this site.)
[Reversing the case above] Appeals Court says holding up a sign to tell people there are cops ahead IS protected speech
That’s the bibliography. Now, we can get to the details of this case. Jonathan Guessford was first confronted, then hassled, then pursued, then pulled over, and, finally, cited for a moving violation he didn’t commit by Delaware state troopers.
Guessford managed to attract the attention of Corporal Stephen Douglas, Trooper Nicholas Gallo, and Master Corporal Raiford Box by calling attention to a state police speed trap. As is detailed in Guessford’s lawsuit [PDF] (and captured on multiple cameras, including Guessford’s phone), the officers rolled up on Guessford armed with their attitudes and some convenient lies.
This is from the NBC report on the recent lawsuit settlement:
The cell phone video shows troopers approaching Guessford, who was standing in a grassy area next to the shoulder of Route 13 north of Dover. Douglas told Guessford that he was “disrupting traffic,” while Gallo, based on a witness report, said Guessford was “jumping into traffic.”
“You are a liar,” Guessford told Gallo.
“I’m on the side of the road, legally parked, with a sign which is protected by the First Amendment,” he told troopers.
Dascham video shows Douglas twice lunging at Guessford to prevent him from raising his sign. Gallo then ripped it from his hands and tore it up.
So, there’s that. That alone could possibly support a First Amendment retaliation claim. But that’s still in the unsettled area of the law where conveying a message that makes cops angry is somehow not considered expressive enough (according to some judges) to be considered protected speech.
But it didn’t end there. Guessford got back in car and drove off, waving goodbye to the troopers with his extended middle finger.
This is what happened next:
As Guessford drove away, he made an obscene hand gesture at the troopers. Dashcam video shows Douglas racing after him at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour) in a 55 mph zone, followed closely by Gallo and Box.
Well, that seems unsafe. It was just a little disrespect, not a felony in progress.
Once stopped, Guessford was threatened by Trooper Box, who said he was going to charge Guessford with resisting arrest, tow his car, and call social services to pick up his son who was riding with him.
Fortunately, none of that happened. Instead, the troopers settled for (bogusly) citing Guessford for “using an improper hand turn signal.” What was caught by the dashcam recording following the stop showed the trooper knew the entire thing was bullshit.
Box’s dashcam audio also captures his subsequent phone call with a supervisor, Lt. Christopher Popp, in which Box acknowledges that citing Guessford for his hand gesture is “pushing it.”
“You can’t do that,” Popp tells Box. “That will be dropped.”
“Yeah, it’s gonna get dropped,” Box replies. “I told (Douglas) it’s definitely going to get thrown out. … I said, ‘Ah, that’s not really going to fly, buddy.’”
The final shot from the troopers?
Douglas is heard saying that even if the charge would be dropped, it at least “inconvenienced” Guessford.
Well, HAHAHA, guess who’s inconvenienced NOW?
Delaware State Police have agreed to pay $50,000 to resolve a federal lawsuit filed by a man who said troopers violated his constitutional rights by preventing him from warning motorists about a speed trap.
Oh, wait. The joke’s on us. Or, more particularly, the taxpaying residents of Delaware. These troopers aren’t going to pass their iconic hats to ensure Guessford gets paid. Nope, they’ve already collected the paychecks they “earned” for this dumbass stunt and they’re going to continue to collect paychecks in the future. The settlement will be paid by taxpayers, ensuring no one involved learns anything from this asinine string of events. All we can hope for is that the lawsuit generated enough courtroom discussion of the issues, the next settlement for something this stupid will arrive much, much faster.
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