The 'bird' has the last word in traffic stop

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By Marie E. Matyjaszek

We’ve all wanted to give someone a piece of our mind after a perceived grievance. Most of us can rein it in and let our frustrations out after the incident is over. That was not the case in June 2017 when Debra Cruise-Gulyas was pulled over by Taylor police officer Matthew Minard.

Debra was driving a wee bit too fast, which caught Minard’s attention. The officer must have had a split second feeling of compassion, and issued her a non-moving violation ticket, a less serious offense than speeding. The stop concluded and Debra drove off, but not before leaving Minard with a parting gift of raising her middle finger.

Minard’s previous compassionate attitude quickly evaporated as he witnessed the less than polite gesture directed at him. He pulled her over again and changed the ticket to a speeding offense. This time, Debra responded with a lawsuit.

In March 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals (Sixth Circuit) sided with Debra and found that Minard violated her constitutional rights in stopping her a second time and increasing the severity of the ticket. Minard argued that he had qualified immunity, which “protects police from personal liability unless they violate a person’s clearly established constitutional or statutory rights.”  Unfortunately for him, he did just that.

Police have to justify their stops, and the first time Minard pulled Debra over, she was speeding, so he had cause. But the second stop was a completely different story. Despite her gesture being offensive, it is not illegal to “flip the bird” to a police officer. The cause for justifying the first stop disappeared after the stop was concluded. Pulling her over a second time violated Debra’s Fourth Amendment rights, according to the appellate court.

The court chastised Minard when it opined that he violated Debra’s right to free speech, stating “Any reasonable officer should know that a citizen who raises her middle finger engages in speech protected by the First Amendment.”

Relative to Debra’s claims of a Fourteenth Amendment violation, the lower court ruled that claim could proceed. Minard did not provide an argument separate from the First and Fourth Amendment issues in the appeal; therefore, the court affirmed the decision in allowing Debra’s lawsuit to continue. It’s honestly shocking to me that Minard is appealing the ruling.  If he needs a lesson in free speech, he should start reading Twitter.

The next time I’m pulled over, I will know that I can safely express my Italian side and talk with my hands. It won’t earn me any points in heaven, but it won’t cost me any points on my driving record.

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The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own.  Her blog site is: http://legalbling.blogspot.com. She can be reached at matyjasz@hotmail.com.

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