Federal Court: Talking Back to a Cop Can Cost Your Job

federal court talking back to a cop can cost your job

Speaking your mind to a police officer during a traffic stop is not free speech, according to the Tenth Circuit US Court of Appeals. A three-judge panel ruled Thursday that Colorado Springs, Colorado Police Officer Duaine Peters did nothing wrong in having Miriam Leverington fired from her job as a nurse at Memorial Health System for talking back after he wrote her a speeding citation.

Peters had been running a speed trap on an exit from Interstate 25 on December, 17, 2008. He pulled over Leverington and the interaction quickly became “less than cordial.” After being handed her ticket, Leverington told Peters that she hoped she never had him as a patient.

“I hope not too, because maybe I’ll call your supervisor and tell her you threatened me,” Peters fired back.

Leverington said her comments were not a threat, but after Peters called the human resources staff at the hospital Leverington’s employment was immediately terminated “because she had threatened a police officer.” Leverington sued on the grounds that Peters and the hospital had violated her right to free speech. Leverington argued that her words were meant to express the thought that Peters was being rude and she never wanted to interact with him ever again.

The appellate judges did not believe that Leverington, as a public employee, had free speech rights that applied in this situation. Only statements expressing a matter of “public concern” are protected under the court’s precedents.

“Her statement on its face indicated that her personal animus toward Peters could impact any possible future interaction with him that she might have as a nurse at Memorial,” Senior Judge David M. Ebel wrote. “This is precisely the kind of speech that that public-concern requirement is designed to ‘weed out.'”

The court proceeded to dismiss the complaint against Peters on the ground that Leverington’s statements were not constitutionally protected speech, which cleared Peters of wrongdoing. As a police officer, Peters enjoys qualified immunity as long as he is not engaging in illegal activity or violating constitutional rights.

“Here, even drawing all reasonable inferences in favor of Ms. Leverington, it is debatable whether a reasonable officer in Peters’s position would have considered her statement to be a threat,” Ebel wrote. “Accordingly, Ms. Leverington’s free-speech rights in this context were not clearly established, and Peters is entitled to qualified immunity on this basis.”

A copy of the decision is available in a 75k PDF file at the source link below.

Leverington v. Colorado Springs (US Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, 5/8/2011)

[Courtesy: Thenewspaper.com]

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  • AJ AJ on May 10, 2011

    In a related rant, speed traps are just that... traps. I pass them on a regular basis going to and from work. They're just a money maker and it's not for our safety when they cause backups and endanger us all for pulling some guy over for going 11 to 15 mph over like 90% of the rest of the traffic is. Not the LEOs fault I'll admit, but it's not something I'd feel great about doing (other then it's probably better then dealing with real criminals).

  • M 1 M 1 on May 11, 2011

    Nice. So the cop felt "threatened." Riiight. I'm surprised that no one has observed that the cop's response was itself a threat, and one which he carried out. Why is his threat ok, but hers is not? Christ, people, she was angry. People say stupid things that they'd never do when they're angry. One would expect a cop, of all people, would be well aware of this. When a customer hoses up a million-dollar deal (which happens in my line of work every month or two), my business partner reflexively rants and raves and threatens to hop on a plane and go throat-punch somebody, or chop off their balls, or any number of other popular ways to vent. Do I rush to the phone and call the FBI? Of course not, because I'm not some pansy-ass hand-wringer who thinks we should all be polite little taxpaying robots, lined up neatly in rows and doing as we're told. But incredibly, I'm starting to believe there are people who might do exactly this. He was an asshole, she was a bitch, that should have been the end of it. But police have been almost literally sanctified along with the rest of the machinery of state, and he knew there would be no repercussions if he played out the "mine is bigger" game. He is laughing about the outcome. Her life is probably ruined. And most of you seem to think this is somehow an equitable conclusion. Appalling.

    • Mike978 Mike978 on May 11, 2011

      +1 - although I would say the police are more sanctified than most public sector workers. The media is quite happy to run down teachers etc.

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