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Federal Court: Talking Back to a Cop Can Cost Your Job
Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the firing of a nurse who talked back to a cop during a traffic stop.

Judge David M. Ebel
Speaking your mind to a police officer during a traffic stop is not free speech, according to the Tenth Circuit US Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel ruled Thursday that Colorado Springs, Colorado Police Officer Duaine Peters did nothing wrong in having Miriam Leverington fired from her job as a nurse at Memorial Health System for talking back after he wrote her a speeding citation.

Peters had been running a speed trap on an exit from Interstate 25 on December, 17, 2008. He pulled over Leverington and the interaction quickly became "less than cordial." After being handed her ticket, Leverington told Peters that she hoped she never had him as a patient.

"I hope not too, because maybe I'll call your supervisor and tell her you threatened me," Peters fired back.

Leverington said her comments were not a threat, but after Peters called the human resources staff at the hospital Leverington's employment was immediately terminated "because she had threatened a police officer." Leverington sued on the grounds that Peters and the hospital had violated her right to free speech. Leverington argued that her words were meant to express the thought that Peters was being rude and she never wanted to interact with him ever again.

The appellate judges did not believe that Leverington, as a public employee, had free speech rights that applied in this situation. Only statements expressing a matter of "public concern" are protected under the court's precedents.

"Her statement on its face indicated that her personal animus toward Peters could impact any possible future interaction with him that she might have as a nurse at Memorial," Senior Judge David M. Ebel wrote. "This is precisely the kind of speech that that public-concern requirement is designed to 'weed out.'"

The court proceeded to dismiss the complaint against Peters on the ground that Leverington's statements were not constitutionally protected speech, which cleared Peters of wrongdoing. As a police officer, Peters enjoys qualified immunity as long as he is not engaging in illegal activity or violating constitutional rights.

"Here, even drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Ms. Leverington, it is debatable whether a reasonable officer in Peters's position would have considered her statement to be a threat," Ebel wrote. "Accordingly, Ms. Leverington's free-speech rights in this context were not clearly established, and Peters is entitled to qualified immunity on this basis."

A copy of the decision is available in a 75k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Leverington v. Colorado Springs (US Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, 5/8/2011)

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