Can You Be Arrested for Saying Rude Things to a Police Officer?
It is the rare person who hasn’t said a mean or rude thing from time to time. When you say such words to a telemarketer, a person who cuts you off in traffic, or even a friend or family member, it may result in some anger or hurt feelings and hopefully nothing more. But if you shout profanity, insults or mean things to someone with a badge and a gun, it can be a whole different ballgame.
While it may not be the smartest move to be rude or profane to a police officer, it is also your right as an American to do so, with certain limitations. Being rude to a cop is not a crime, and unless you are threatening the officer, interfering with their work, or are using “fighting words” specifically to incite a violent response, you should not be arrested or charged with a crime
You Have a First Amendment Right to Be Obnoxious to Police
The U.S. Supreme Court has unequivocally held that the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment includes protecting the rights of citizens to freely express themselves to police officers, including expression that is insulting, abusive, rude or obnoxious. As the Court said: “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” (City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 462 (1987)).
Following the Court’s lead, judges have consistently dismissed criminal charges – often “catchall” charges such as disturbing the peace – which were premised simply on a person saying things that angered or offended an officer.
A great example is a 2015 case from Washington state. A teenager, who was upset at an officer for trying to arrest and acting abusively to the teen’s sister, was arrested and ultimately convicted for obstruction of justice after he yelled at a police officer (calling him a “m---f---er” among other choice words). Importantly, the teen in no way physically intervened or interfered with the officer’s performance of his duties.
The Washington Supreme 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)
“Fighting Words” Aren’t Covered by the First Amendment
Freedom of speech is not without limits, and one of those limits is at “fighting words.” 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).
While there is no list of “fighting words,” it can be hard to determine whether a specific comment or gesture will fall outside of the First Amendment. But rude comments or profane words that are merely insulting or that might make the officer angry are not likely out of bounds. For example, several courts have held that calling an officer an “a--hole” does not constitute “fighting words.”
Of course, just because you have the constitutional right to be rude to a cop doesn’t mean the offended officer can’t or won’t arrest you, even if you may ultimately be vindicated.
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