WADESBORO — A man’s middle finger has landed him in legal trouble.
An Anson County sheriff’s deputy on Monday arrested a 19-year-old passerby who is accused of flipping him the bird while driving past the home where a man was found shot to death early that day.
William Dunlap of 181 Rivers St., Wadesboro, faces a charge of misdemeanor disorderly conduct. An arrest warrant states that Dunlap raised his finger at Deputy Vance Bennett while driving past the 1072 U.S. 52 North crime scene.
Anson County Sheriff Tommy Allen was out of the office Tuesday afternoon and couldn’t be reached in time for this story.
Free-speech advocates say the First Amendment protects the hand gesture, and many courts have thrown out middle-finger arrests, citing defendants’ right to criticize public law enforcement officers.
A provision of North Carolina’s disorderly conduct law, General Statute 14-288.4, prohibits “any utterance, gesture, display or abusive language which is intended and plainly likely to provoke violent retaliation and thereby cause a breach of the peace.”
Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina have questioned the law’s application to vulgar language and gestures such as the middle finger, which are often found to be protected speech under the First Amendment.
In January 2013, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a New York man’s civil rights lawsuit on wrongful arrest claims could proceed after finding that 62-year-old John Swartz’s flashing of the middle finger did not give police probable cause to stop his car.
City officials in Orem, Utah, settled a 2012 lawsuit with a man who was pulled over and cited for raising his middle finger at a police officer. As part of the settlement, the city agreed not to ticket other drivers for the gesture.
Not every court ruling has favored the bird-flippers, however. In 2009, a federal magistrate judge said a Maine man’s claim of a First Amendment violation lacked merit after he was cited for giving game wardens the middle finger. Experts at the First Amendment Center said that ruling runs contrary to most legal precedent.
In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of a man who shouted challenging comments to police during an investigation. He was charged under a Houston city ordinance that barred interfering with police during the performance of their duties.
“The First Amendment protects a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers,” Justice William Brennan wrote in the majority opinion.
In the Anson County case, deputies were investigating the death of 21-year-old Dameon Thomas. Officials said two men burst into a home off U.S. 52 and shot Thomas multiple times while he sat on the couch with his girlfriend shortly before 1 a.m. Monday.
Dunlap was arrested on the disorderly conduct charge and released on a $1,000 unsecured bond. He’s scheduled to appear in Anson County District Court on Aug. 26.
Reach Editor Corey Friedman at 910-817-2670 and follow him on Twitter @RCDailyJournal.