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Can police stop a motorist for making obscene gestures?

Many drivers can relate to a situation one man in another state was in a couple years ago. He had a long history with law enforcement agents in the county, and was known for annoying county court staff members with emails and letters. After one occasion of filing court documents, the man was leaving with his sister when he noted several police officers getting in their cars behind him.

As the man rode off in his sister's car, he extended his middle finger and flipped off the officers from the passenger side window. He was promptly pulled over. 

Was the stop legal?

The deputy who made the stop claims that he stopped the car because he believed the hand gesture meant something was wrong.

However, this was an insufficient explanation for the stop, according to a federal judge. He says that at no point during the stop did the officer express any concern or question about the driver or passenger's well-being. He also says that at no time in the officer's career was there an instance where a middle finger or obscene hand gesture was a signal of distress.

Because of this, the judge recently ruled that the officer stopped the car without probable cause and violated the man's right to protection from unreasonable seizure.

Examining probable cause

Police must have probable cause to pull someone over. While this can be something as minor as a broken license plate light, police must believe that a driver has committed or is committing a crime in order to pull someone over.

If they do not, a driver is being detained unlawfully. Further, if police find anything like drugs in the course of that stop, then that evidence could be dismissed as it was obtained wrongfully.

With all this in mind, we encourage drivers who were pulled over and charged with a crime like drug possession or trafficking to take seriously their right to defend themselves. In some cases, charges could be reduced or dismissed if it can be determined that the stop was unlawful in the first place.

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The Law Offices of Campana, Hoffa, Morrone & Lovecchio, P.C.
602 Pine Street
Williamsport, PA 17701

Phone: 570-279-4163
Fax: 570-326-3498
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