Can you get in trouble if you give a cop the middle finger in SC? Here’s what the law says

Let’s just say you’re cruising down a South Carolina highway, upset about work or family or something and then in your rear view you see blue lights.

Not happy.

Officer comes to the window and says your taillight is busted.

You think, are you kidding me? And as the officer walks away you flip them off.

Are you going to be arrested for that?

Captain Sonny Collins of the South Carolina Highway Patrol says it’s the officer’s discretion based on the circumstances.

The situation would fall under the disorderly conduct law, he said.

The law deals mainly with people who are drunk and creating a scene or firing guns within 50 feet of a road or highway.

But then there’s this: “uses obscene or profane language on any highway or at any public place or gathering or in hearing distance of any schoolhouse or church.”

That is a misdemeanor charge with $100 fine if found guilty or 30 days in jail.

But here’s a caveat in the law: “conditional discharge may be granted by the court in accordance with the provisions of this section upon approval by the circuit solicitor.”

And here’s another: courts have ruled giving someone the middle finger is actually free speech.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, ruled in 2019 that flipping off an officer is protected as free speech under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The case was brought by Debra L. Cruise-Gulyas, who initially was given a break and cited for a non-moving violation instead of a speeding ticket. But after she flipped off officer Matthew Minard of the Taylor, Michigan Police Department, he pulled her over again and gave her a speeding ticket.

Two things were wrong, the court said: the gesture is free speech and you can’t pull someone over again. Unreasonable search and seizure (4th Amendment) and lack of due process (14th Amendment), the court said.

“Fits of rudeness or lack of gratitude may violate the Golden Rule. But that doesn’t make them illegal or for that matter punishable or for that matter grounds for a seizure,” the opinion states.

It’s not just an Ohio appeals court. Professor Rachel Harmon of the University of Virginia School of Law said on “Talks on Law,” “The Supreme Court has long recognized that protected speech may include symbolic and expressive conduct — like flipping the bird — when the speaker intends to convey a message or idea.”

Yet, while the gesture alone might not get you in trouble, other actions arising from the heat of the moment could be interpreted as something more, perhaps resisting arrest or some other violation of the law.