As shortformblog & kateopolis note, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit recently held that flipping off a police officer does not give the officer reasonable suspicion to suspect you of criminal activity, and thus to detain you. While I am quite happy about this ruling, this case nonetheless warrants further comment. I fear that some people (particular young people) may feel emboldened by this ruling, and in the process of exercising their “constitutional right” to flip off a police officer, will end up just getting themselves into trouble.
Back in 2009, Harvey Silvergate published a book called Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent. Silvergate attempts to demonstrate that the average American, on any given day, is predisposed to commit three federal felonies a day without even realizing it. This is due to a combination of vaguely defined laws and outdated criminal statutory language that doesn’t always keep pace with technology. This allows law enforcement officials considerable leeway in deciding what constitutes criminal conduct, and whether to arrest and/or charge someone with a crime.
Silvergate’s argument about the ever-more encompassing state of American criminal law has long been recognized by legal commentators. Judge Posner, dissenting in the Seventh Circuit in 1998, noted the sorry state of the criminal law, discussing the thousands of “ridiculously obscure” criminal prohibitions in the federal law that most people are not even aware of. Two years prior, in an infamous case called Whren v. United States, the defendants argued, inter alia, that there were so many traffic ordinances on the books in the District of Columbia that the city’s police officers could essentially pull anyone over at any time for any reason. In other words, there were so many laws on the books (traffic laws in particular) that it was nearly impossible to obey all of them at all times. This did not move the Supreme Court, who addressed the argument as follows:
Petitioners urge as an extraordinary factor in this case that the “multitude of applicable traffic and equipment regulations” is so large and so difficult to obey perfectly that virtually everyone is guilty of violation, permitting the police to single out almost whomever they wish for a stop. Butwe are aware of no principle that would allow us to decide at what point a code of law becomes so expansive and so commonly violated that infraction itself can no longer be the ordinary measure of the lawfulness of enforcement. And even if we could identify such exorbitant codes, we do not know by what standard (or what right) we would decide, as petitioners would have us do, which particular provisions are sufficiently important to merit enforcement.
In other words, the fact that there are so many laws on the books that they are difficult to obey simultaneously is not relevant to whether an officer can detain you for violating one of them. More importantly, the Supreme Court, in the bolded passage above, implicitly leaves it up to law enforcement officials “which particular provisions are sufficiently important to merit enforcement.” This gives police full discretion to decide which of a jurisdiction’s obscurest laws they actually want to enforce—and when they want to enforce them.
And this is why you should not suddenly begin flipping off police officers. There are a number of perfectly legal ways in which law enforcement officials can harass you if you decide to antagonize them. The Second Circuit held that flipping off a police officer is not a criminal act, nor does it imply one is underway—but what the ruling does not prevent is the ability of law enforcement officials to pay extra close attention to you, until they catch you violating one of the above-mentioned myriad of obscure laws. And at that point, they’ll nail for something that they might have simply ignored otherwise.
Is this unfair? Absolutely. The Whren decision has been roundly criticized by legal commentators since its inception. Posner’s 1998 dissent, which lamented the decline of the fundamental concept of criminal law known as Mens Rea—the idea thatyou must sufficiently intend to violate a law before you can be charged with violating the same—is shared by many legal commentators as well.
But these criticisms do not change the state of the law at present. And the state of the law is this: flipping off a police officer is, practically speaking, still more likely to result in you being sanctioned for unwitting violations of obscure and/or under-enforced laws than mere material satisfaction of a new-found constitutional right. Note also that this decision is limited to the 2nd Circuit: meaning that the decision is only binding authority in Connecticut, New York, and Vermont. So what little protection the decision gives is not even binding outside of those three states.
Nonetheless, if you’re going to flip off the cops, do so with care. If the officer in question is committed to retaliating against you, in most cases, they’ll be able to find a way to do so that is perfectly legal, thanks to the current state of the criminal law in America.