September 9, 2008

Pittsburgh Police Giving Tickets For Profanity, Middle Finger

thepittsburghchannel.com

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City police wrote nearly 200 disorderly conduct citations over a 32-month period for swearing, obscene gestures and other acts deemed disrespectful -- which the American Civil Liberties Union said was unacceptable and showed a lack of training.Those statistics came from a Right to Know request that was made in connection with a lawsuit filed by David Hackbart, who said he was improperly cited for giving the middle finger to another driver -- and then a police sergeant -- while trying to parallel park in Squirrel Hill in April 2006.When a driver blocked Hackbart on Murray Avenue, Hackbart made an obscene gesture and then heard a voice saying, "Don't flip him off," according to Vic Walczak, the ACLU's legal director in Pennsylvania.

"Without looking at who was saying that, as he was turning, he flips the bird to the sound of the voice, which turns out to be a Pittsburgh police officer," Walczak said.The ACLU is helping Hackbart fight his citation and fine on First Amendment grounds. Also, Walczak said the city should improve its police officer training and discipline to prevent similar citations from being issued in the future."While flipping somebody off or using profane language may not be pleasant, it is constitutionally protected speech, especially when it's uttered towards a public official," Walczak said.Twenty months of court records obtained by the ACLU show city police giving 188 disorderly conduct citations to people using profanity or a profane gesture between March 1, 2005, and Oct. 31, 2006."The police need to understand that they're not Miss Manners, they can't be enforcing nice language, and that it's inappropriate for them to use the criminal laws to punish somebody because they may use profane language," Walczak said.Police Chief Nate Harper and Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson told WTAE Channel 4 Action News that "profanity in and of itself is not an unlawful conduct," but disorderly conduct citations by city police take into account all conduct involved.Officers are well-trained to make those decisions, said Harper and Donaldson, who denied the ACLU's claims to the contrary.In a recent court filing, the city said Hackbart's disorderly conduct citation was not for his gestures, but because he was blocking traffic -- although the officer on the case did note in the citation that Hackbart had used the middle finger.In 2002, a Pittsburgh man won a $3,000 jury verdict after being cited for a traffic dispute in which he cursed at officers.

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