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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Cape Girardeau Must Stop Arresting People for Swearing At Cops, Judge Says

Posted By on Wed, Mar 2, 2016 at 8:49 AM

click to enlarge Swear at a cop without being arrested? Thank the First Amendment. - VIA FLICKR
  • via Flickr
  • Swear at a cop without being arrested? Thank the First Amendment.
Informing a cop that he is "a freakin’ dick" for writing you a ticket shouldn't end in your arrest, a federal judge said Monday — nearly three years after a Cape Girardeau officer arrested a man for spouting potty-mouthed invective during a traffic stop.

From here on out, the city will be prohibited from enforcing its noise ordinance, which previously encompassed "yelling, shouting, hooting, whistling or singing ... so as to annoy, disturb the quiet, comfort or repose of persons in any office, or in any dwelling, hotel or other type of residence, or of any persons in the vicinity."

In issuing the permanent injunction, U.S. District Judge Carole Jackson found that the ordinance conflicted with the First Amendment. Ya think?

Here's the backstory: On August 30, 2013, Cape Girardeau officer Matthew Peters pulled over David Cleary's truck for making an illegal turn. Peters wrote Cleary a ticket, but the ensuing exchange quickly grew testy.

According to Cleary's lawsuit, Peters informed Cleary that he could avoid avoid court by pleading guilty and paying a fine. Cleary responded, "I don’t wanna plead guilty, 'cause that’s crap." 

We'll let Cleary's lawsuit take it from here. 

Plaintiff asked Defendant Peters if there was a sign prohibiting the turn, and Peters said that there was.
Plaintiff responded, “That’s bullshit.”
Defendant Peters then asked Plaintiff to sign the citation and informed him that his signature on the citation was not an admission of guilt.
Plaintiff signed the citation.
Plaintiff then said to Defendant Peters, “You’re a freakin’ dick.”
Defendant Peters responded, “I’m sorry?”
Plaintiff replied, “You heard me. I said you’re a dick.”
Defendant Peters asked, “Why am I a dick?”
Plaintiff answered, “‘cause you’re a dick. You can tell by your freakin’ attitude you’re a dick.”
Defendant Peters then terminated the traffic stop, telling Plaintiff to drive safely, and Plaintiff was free to leave.
As Defendant Peters returned to his vehicle, Plaintiff said “go fuck yourself.”
Defendant Peters told Plaintiff to “have a good day.”
Plaintiff said, “Fuck off.”
Defendant Peters threatened Plaintiff by stating, “if I can hear you over fifty feet, I’m a take ya to jail for prohibited acts.”
Plaintiff said, “Do it,” and suggested that Defendant Peters “shut the fuck up.”

After their little chat, Peters arrested Cleary for violating Cape Girardeau's noise ordinance. Cleary was detained for an hour. During a bench trial, Cleary was ultimately found guilty of making an illegal turn — but not for violating the noise ordnance.

Cleary, in turn, went to the ACLU of Missouri, which filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Peters and Cape Girardeau, alleging that the southeast Missouri city's noise ordinance violated the First Amendment. 

Judge Jackson agreed. "In the absence of a permanent injunction barring enforcement of the Ordinance, the free speech rights of the plaintiff and other citizens would continue to be curtailed," Jackson wrote in the ruling's conclusion. 

In a statement, ACLU attorney Tony Rothert pointed out that the First Amendment was created with just this scenario in mind, "to protect people from being arrested for saying what they think to government officials.”

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at

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