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There may be no law against dissing a cop, but …

While sitting alone in the U.S. 95 traffic again last night, calculating the price of a ticket if I pulled over into that HOV lane, I also asked myself how much higher the fine might go if I gave the cop a bit of my attitude. My First Amendment right, right? How long could I be stranded if he asks to search my car and I insist on my Fourth Amendment right to be free from search or seizure without a warrant?

A Pittsburgh driver has the answer to the First Amendment question.

In April of 2006, David Hackbart was trying to parallel park his vehicle when a driver blocked his intended parking space. Hackbart signaled his disapproval with a middle-finger gesture. When a voice told him to not flip off people, he gave the same gesture toward the voice. 

The voice was that of a Pittsburgh police sergeant, who ticketed Hackbart for violating a state statute prohibiting the use of obscene language and gestures.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued on Hackbart’s behalf.

"Courts have interpreted this section of the statute very narrowly to bar only speech and conduct that is truly obscene and thus outside of First Amendment protection," said Sara Rose, an ACLU attorney.

The practical aspect of such a law was explained by ACLU cooperating attorney Thomas J. Farrell: "The police practice of detaining and charging people for impolite behavior gives the police arbitrary power to harass citizens they do not like. This practice must stop."

Three and a half years later, the Pittsburgh City Council has tentatively agreed to pay Hackbart $50,000 for his effort. Of that, $40,000 will go to legal fees.

Before you try this at home, remember, if the cop had instead simply piled on several traffic tickets, there would be no free speech issue. Prove those tickets were arbitrary. There may be no law against dissing a cop, but …

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