Can Police Arrest You Just for Being Rude to Them?
It is generally not a good idea to be rude or shout profanities at police officers. It is also generally not a crime and should not result in your arrest. Unless you are threatening the police officer or are using “fighting words” to incite a violent response from the officer, police should not arrest you simply for being rude to them.
You Have a First Amendment Right to Be Rude
The Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of citizens to freely express themselves to police officers, including speech that is rude, insulting, profane, or verbally abusive. “The freedom of individuals verbally to oppose or challenge police action without thereby risking arrest is one of the principal characteristics by which we distinguish a free nation from a police state," the Court has held.(City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 462 (1987).
This constitutional right to be rude has led courts here in Florida and across the country to dismiss criminal charges or overturn convictions that were based on nothing more than an officer taking offense at something an individual said to them.
An example of such a case was a June 2015 decision by the Supreme Court of Washington state. In that case, a teenager was arrested and ultimately convicted for obstruction of justice after he screamed at a police officer who was trying to arrest and appeared to be abusive toward his sister. The officer ordered the teen to stop watching the officer’s conduct, but the teen refused and continued to yell at the officer (including calling him a “m---f---er).” Importantly, the teen did not physically interfere with the officer’s performance of his duties.
The Court overturned the conviction, stating that:
“First Amendment values have occupied a crucial place in shaping our democracy. Cases have consistently and strongly held that people cannot be held liable when exercising their right to speak. While [defendant’s] words may have been disrespectful, discourteous, and annoying, they are nonetheless constitutionally protected.”
State v. E.J.J., No. 88694-6 (Wash. Jun 25, 2015)
The First Amendment Doesn’t Protect “Fighting Words”
Your right to be rude to a police officer ends at “fighting words,” which are not protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has defined “fighting words” as words "which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” and are words that are "likely to cause an average addressee to fight." Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 572 (1942).
Of course, there is no dictionary of “fighting words,” so whether something you say will actually be considered “fighting words” in a given situation is hard to determine in advance. But words that are merely insulting or that might make the officer angry are not fighting words. For example, calling an officer an “a--hole” has been found by multiple courts not to be “fighting words.”
The First Amendment also protects “non-verbal” speech. Courts have held that “flipping the bird” at police officers is protected speech that cannot be the basis of an arrest for disorderly conduct, breach of the peace, or similar criminal offenses.
You Shouldn’t Be Arrested for Rudeness. That Doesn’t Mean You Won’t Be.
Sadly, police often will make arrests and bring charges when they have don’t have a legitimate legal basis for doing so. When that happens, as in the Washington state case, the ultimate vindication of the person’s First Amendment rights usually comes only after the lengthy ordeal of a wrongful arrest and prosecution. Remember, just because you shouldn’t be arrested for expressing your “disrespectful, discourteous, and annoying” words and opinions towards an officer doesn’t mean you won’t be. The reality is that you could still be arrested – albeit wrongfully - simply for bruising a police officer’s ego.
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