Traffic Ticket Profanity Results in First Amendment Lawsuit

Admit it:  you’ve fantasized about doing this.

Below is the complaint filed by Willian Barboza in June, captioned Willian Barboza v. Detective Steven D’Agata and Police Officer Melvin Gorr, 13-cv-4067 (SDNY June 13, 2013).  Plaintiff alleges:

In August 2012, plaintiff Willian Barboza paid by mail a traffic ticket that he received while driving through the Village of Liberty in Sullivan County, New York.  Plaintiff expressed his frustration by crossing out “Liberty” from the payment form and replacing it with “TYRANNY,” and writing “FUCK YOUR SHITTY TOWN BITCHES.”  For writing the latter set of words, plaintiff was ordered to appear in court, arrested and handcuffed, and prosecuted under New York’s Aggravated Harassment statute, Penal Law § 240.30(1)(a). In dismissing the charge seven months later, the Town court hearing the case observed that “no citation is necessary for this Court to determine that the language under the circumstances here, offensive as it is, is protected” under the First Amendment.

The criminal statute Barboza was charged with violating, New York Penal Law § 240.30(1)(a), states:

A person is guilty of aggravated harassment in the second degree when, with intent to harass, annoy, threaten or alarm another person, he or she communicates with a person, anonymously or otherwise, by telephone, by telegraph, or by mail, or by transmitting or delivering any other form of written communication, in a manner likely to cause annoyance or alarm.

Plaintiff claims that while driving him to court for arraignment, one defendant told him that “he did not engage in free speech because his written comment on the payment form had offended employees in the clerks’ office.”

I don’t know what is more disturbing:  the fact that (1) there are police officers who believe that they are the arbiters of what speech is protected under the First Amendment (this is why we have courts), or (2) New York has a statute that, in effect, makes it a crime to be annoying (in which case most people I know, myself included, have committed a crime).

Update: Summary Judgment Decision

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