It is not a crime to insult a police officer. It is, in fact, your First Amendment Right to do so.
There have even been Supreme Court decisions about this. In 1987, the City of Houston vs. Hill case protected this type of speech, in response to an ordinance that prohibited citizens from “interrupting police as the execution of their duty.” Lower courts ruled this could include verbal interruptions.
While delivering the opinion of the court, Justice Brennan said: “the First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers.”
The Supreme Court cited older cases which supported this conclusion. And they ruled that police officers should, in fact, be expected to be capable of handling a broader range of verbal attacks than the average citizen without escalating the situation. In New York, this is part of police academy training.
And even flipping off the police isn’t illegal, according to a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
None of this means mouthing off to the police is a good idea. They’ve been known to escalate traffic stops, as well as to charge people with disorderly conduct. They’ve been known to do this even if they just don’t like what people have to say to them in calm, reasonable tones.
They’ve been known to use force as well, often to deadly, tragic ends. There are a lot of people working in policing who should not be there, and who react violently to any perceived challenge to their authority.
Responding this way is a form of police misconduct. It can open the police up to a lawsuit. Often the bigger concern is going to be protecting the rights and freedoms of the victim, who has now been charged with some form of criminal misconduct.
The new body cam law does offer some hope that police officers won’t be able to get away with this kind of behavior. In the past in these cases there have been situations where it’s the defendant’s word against the law enforcement officer’s. The good news is that when the defendant has evidence on his or her side, courts around the country have routinely ruled in his or her favor.
The bad news is any arrest is life-disrupting, and violent arrests can leave the victim with injuries that may never entirely heal.
Keep in mind that threatening a cop is a crime and is not protected by the First Amendment. And the line between verbal abuse and threat is sometimes not very clear. And if you are arrested on other charges, keep in mind that body cam recordings can work against you. Juries grow less sympathetic when they hear recordings of defendants screaming profanities at the officers who arrested them.
If you are wrongfully arrested, you’ll strengthen your own case by remaining as calm and as polite as possible.
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