How Much Can You Legally Get Away With Saying to a Cop?


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Admit it, you have probably thought about it. What can you legally say to a cop and get away with it? Maybe an officer pulled you over on the wrong day, maybe you distrust cops, or maybe you just like living on the edge. Whatever your reasoning, you might be surprised to find out that getting a little mouthy is not technically an automatic one way trip to jail.

First, a word of warning: doing anything to aggravate a police officer is a really bad idea. Not only are these hard working men and women who likely want to make the world a better place through their work, but they are trained bad asses with guns, handcuffs, and nightsticks and they can really make your life unpleasant. Indeed, they can likely make your life much more miserable than you will be making theirs by smarting off to them. So, think twice before using the following advice. And, remember, these are all “technically” true pearls of wisdom, but “technically” may be too fine a distinction to keep you from getting arrested in the heat of the moment.

So, that having been said, is it legal to smart off to a police officer? Technically, yes. You have a first amendment right to free speech and free expression. That means you can tell a cop exactly what's on your mind and, provided you do it in a civil manner and do not cause a public disturbance, it should be a protected form of expression. However, in the heat of the moment, when it is your word against a police officer's, who do you think a court is more likely to believe?

In early 2013, a couple decided to test their luck by flipping the bird at a police officer as they drove by. They were arrested, but a Second U.S. Circuit Court judge subsequently held that flipping the bird was not sufficient to create probable cause for a stop. Although they could have been tried for disorderly conduct, they were ultimately released because of a violation of speedy trial. The couple then sued the police and the case remains pending.

So how far can you go? There's no exact answer. For the most part, it will depend on the local laws in your state and city and the temperament of the police officer in question. Some jurisdictions do have laws against disorderly conduct or creating public disturbances. Swearing at police officers or making rude gestures could be violations of these laws. Similarly, if you upset a cop his police report could easily reflect that he believes you engaged in some form of illegal activity, be it driving erratically, creating a public disturbance, or even threatening the officer.

But, if you really, absolutely, positively must say something nasty to a cop, the best way to do it is calmly and quietly in a conversational tone, and preferably while on video. If you can work in some kind of political comment in the middle of it all, that will help bolster your claim that it is simply a form of protected political speech. Whatever you do, do not threaten the officer in any way, either verbally or non-verbally. Do not touch the officer, do not throw anything, do not stomp around and act like a fool. Just remain calm and polite, and spew your venom with a friendly, non-threatening smile. Or, better yet, just think them to yourself and keep your mouth shut, as this will likely keep you out of more trouble.

If you do land yourself in trouble for mouthing off to a police officer, you should contact an attorney at once. You can find a list of attorneys in your area by visiting our Law Firms page on HG.org.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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