On February 10, 2023, Corey Lambert was driving down the road and he gave the middle finger to a police officer who was driving by. That police officer then, in response to the middle finger, initiated a traffic stop. This occurred in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The officer was Coby Engle from the Martinsburg Police Department.
Here’s what he wrote in his report:
I witnessed a white male driver later identified as Corey Lambert, driving a Chevy pickup truck traveling east bound on Mall Drive. When I passed Corey I witnessed him giving an improper hand signal prior to turning left onto Mall Access Road. I then turned around and initiated my emergency lights and sirens and conducted a traffic stop in the parking lot of Grand Home Furnishings on Mall Loop.
When I approached Corey I advised to him the reason for the stop. Corey later stated that he was not indicating his direction [of] travel in his vehicle with his hand signaling and that he was simply giving me the middle finger.
Due to this being a municipal violation of hand and arm signals 339.10 I then asked Corey multiple times for his driver license registration and proof of insurance. He told me multiple times that the didn’t have to provide me with these documents.
At this time Pfc. Boursiquot told Corey again that if he didn’t provide us with these documents that he would be placed under arrest. Corey continued to not comply with our demands. Corey was then placed under arrest at this time and transported back to the Martinsburg City Police Station for processing.
Believe it or not, Corey was then held on a cash only bond for four days and three nights, following his arrest. He was charged with municipal violations of improper hand signal and two counts of obstruction. Then, because the charges were municipal, instead of a real court and real judge, it went to the municipal court, which so they told us on the phone, claims not to be a “court of record,” and as such apparently keep no paperwork. But they told us that the result was that the improper signaling charge was dismissed. One count of obstruction was dismissed. And he was convicted of one count of obstruction.
The protections of the First Amendment are not limited to spoken words, but rather include gestures and other expressive conduct, even if vulgar or offensive to some. For example, in Cohen v. California (1971), the Supreme Court held that an individual wearing a jacket bearing the words “F**k the Draft” in a courthouse corridor could not be prosecuted for disturbing the peace.
Consistent with this precedent, although “the gesture generally known as ‘giving the finger’ … is widely regarded as an offensive insult,” Bad Frog Brewery, Inc. v. N.Y. State Liquor Auth. , (2d Cir. 1998), it is a gesture that is generally protected by the First Amendment. See, e.g. , Cruise-Gulyas v. Minard (6th Cir. 2019) (“Any reasonable [police] officer would know that a citizen who raises her middle finger engages in speech protected by the First Amendment.”); Garcia v. City of New Hope (8th Cir. 2021) (“[Plaintiff’s] raising his middle finger at [a police officer] is a rude and offensive gesture but nonetheless, under current precedent, is a constitutionally protected speech activity.”); Batyukova v. Doege (5th Cir. 2021) (same); accord Swartz v. Insogna (2d Cir. 2013) (holding that giving the middle finger could not support arrest for disorderly conduct); see generally Ira P. Robbins, Digitus Impudicus: The Middle Finger and the Law , 41 U.C. DAVIS L. REV. 1403, 1407–08, 1434 (2008) (observing that the middle finger can express a variety of emotions—such as anger, frustration, defiance, protest, excitement—or even “possess[ ] political or artistic value”).