A federal appeals court ruled that a man wearing an “F the police” shirt and cursing at officers at a county fair in 2016 was not enough probable cause for arrest and was protected by constitutional rights.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati ruled that the man, Michael Wood, was acting within his First Amendment rights and that his arrest for disorderly conduct was unlawful.
“While Wood’s speech was profane, the circumstances did not create a situation where violence was likely to result. We, therefore, conclude that the First Amendment protected Wood’s speech and thus his disorderly conduct arrest lacked probable cause,” the opinion stated.
The court also ruled that officers are not protected by qualified immunity in the case.
“Because there was no probable cause to arrest Wood for his conduct, and because Wood’s right to be free from arrest was clearly established, the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity,” the opinion read. “In the absence of any evidence that Wood was unreasonably loud, there was no probable cause to arrest Wood for his profanities alone.”
The decision overruled a prior district court ruling in favor of deputies in the case of Wood v. Eubanks. The original ruling did not find that Wood’s speech was protected. The case will now return to the district court for further proceedings.
David Carey, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Ohio, said the ruling “confirms that the First Amendment protects people’s right to criticize their government, including law enforcement, regardless of whether they go about it politely.”
Carey said the ruling confirmed that police’s qualified immunity does not give them the power to disregard constitutional rights.
“Crucially, the Sixth Circuit also confirmed that qualified immunity does not protect police when they disregard this particular right. People’s right to criticize their government, including in crude terms, is a necessary component of a free society,” Carey told The Hill.
The event in question occurred in July 2016 when Wood attended a Clark County fair wearing an “F the police” shirt.
According to court documents, Deputies Jacob Shaw, Mario Troutman and Matthew Yates approached Wood two separate times to comment on the shirt without incident until someone called 9-1-1. Deputies Joseph Johnson, Chad Eubanks and Cherish Steiger then arrived on the scene and, with the other officers, persuaded Wood to leave the fair.
However, an argument erupted at the exit when Wood shouted: “Do you know what the legal definition of battery is, [expletive]? Then try to find out.” Officers then arrested Wood for disorderly conduct.
Wood later filed a lawsuit for false arrest and retaliation.
Ben Hunt, speaking on behalf of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, said the agency was disappointed with the ruling and maintained that officers were in the right.
“The deputies in this case acted reasonably and appropriately after Mr. Wood went on a hostile, profanity-laced tirade in the middle of the Clark County Fair,” he said.