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Court protects freedom of expression in Virginia cop case

There is little doubt that many Portsmouth drug arrests have their genesis in traffic stops. While there are many valid reasons to stop a driver who has driven through a red light, driven the wrong direction on a one-way street, exceeded the speed limit and so on, there is no doubt that police officers cannot pull a driver merely because the motorist exercised their right to free speech – even when that expression is crude.

Two years ago, a federal court in Virginia denied qualified immunity to Patrick County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Coleman after he was flipped off by a local gadfly. Brian Clark was apparently annoyed that Coleman was closely following the vehicle he was in, so he gave the deputy the finger.

The deputy was apparently incensed by the crude gesture and pulled the car over. Coleman later claimed that he pulled the car over because Clark’s gesture indicated that he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol or was “suffering from some sort of mental illness.”

During the traffic stop, however, Coleman didn’t ask about intoxication, distress or mental illness.

After a trial, a jury surprisingly found that Coleman had had good reason to stop, detain and question Clark.

Clark appealed the verdict, asking the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia to overturn the decision and protect his First and Fourth Amendment rights. (Note: the First protects freedom of expression and the Fourth guards against unreasonable searches by requiring law enforcement to have probable cause before conducting traffic stops.)

The federal court agreed with Clark, stating that “the jury’s verdict cannot stand” and that “there’s no gray area . . . this was a violation of Clark’s rights.”

The court also stated that Clark’s one-finger gesture did not “on its own create probable cause or reasonable suspicion that he violated any law.”

The evidence was clear: the officer made the stop and detained Clark because he was offended by the crude gesture, not because he believed a law had been broken.

The case is a vivid example of how a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney who understands Virginia law and the Constitution. Not every search and not every traffic stop is justified. Have on your side a Portsmouth lawyer who knows how to protect your rights and freedom.



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