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Federal Judge Reaffirms Right To Flip Off Virginia Cops
Federal judge overturns jury verdict that had exonerated a cop enraged by a passenger who flipped him off.

Rob Coleman
Drivers and their passengers have a constitutional right to express their feelings to police officers with an extended middle finger, according to Chief US District Judge Michael F. Urbanski. Brian H. Clark, the irreverent passenger who flipped off a Virginia sheriff's deputy, won a moral victory on Tuesday as the court overturned a jury verdict that had sided with the police officer.

On July 25, 2016, Clark was waiting outside the Patrick County courthouse while his sister and a friend filed paperwork on his behalf. Clark was known as a gadfly, and the local police were not fans of his. Clark's friend, Wendy Inzerillo, overhead the sheriff's deputies saying "Brian doesn't know what we have in store for him" and that he "couldn't wait to see his face when we take him down."

So as Clark entered the passenger seat of his friend's car, he saw deputies scrambling to follow him in their squad cars. As they left the parking lot, Clark decided to make the obscene gesture toward Deputy Rob Coleman, who was following close behind. Enraged, Deputy Coleman conducted the traffic stop that kicked off the long-running federal lawsuit over the twenty minute roadside detention. Deputy Coleman insisted that he stopped the car because he thought the finger was a sign of distress.

"It took me by surprise," the deputy testified. "In twenty years of doing this job in uniform, I've never had anybody that would flip me off that was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol or not suffering from some sort of mental illness... I thought it was quite possible that he either needed assistance or that he had mistook me for somebody else or he was needing help."

On July 16, 2019, a jury refused to find that the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion to detain Clark. On Tuesday, the court found this finding was incorrect as a matter of law.

"Officer Coleman's alleged public safety concern seems questionable, at best," Judge Urbanski ruled. "Coleman's recent observation of Clark in the courtroom calls into question both his suspicion that Clark was a danger to himself, as he had just presented himself in court one half-hour earlier without issue, and his concern for the public, as Clark was not operating the vehicle."

While finding in Clark's favor, the court noted that Clark suffered no real injury from the incident. As such, the judge denied Clark's request for a new trial to award monetary damages beyond the $1, plus attorney's fees, he was already awarded.

A copy of the memorandum opinion is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Clark v. Coleman (US District Court, Western District of Virginia, 3/24/2020)

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