Pennsylvania police wrongly charged hundreds of people with disorderly conduct for swearing, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a pair of free-speech lawsuits filed Wednesday.
ACLU lawyers reviewed 770 disorderly conduct citations issued by Pennsylvania State Police in a recent one-year span. They said they found that while officers applied the law correctly in some cases, the majority involved profanities and other legal, nonobscene speech.
The lawsuits’ plaintiffs are a pizza delivery driver briefly jailed for cursing at a local officer over a parking ticket and a Luzerne County woman cited by state police for hurling a derogatory name at a swerving motorcyclist.
Pennsylvania’s disorderly conduct statute carries a possible 90-day jail term and $300 fine. The woman paid $1,500 to fight the ticket, while the deliveryman lost $560 in wages and had to pay a $75 towing fee, the suits state.
“You absolutely cannot cite someone just for uttering a profanity,” said ACLU lawyer Marieke Tuthill.
The problem is ultimately a lack of police training, most likely because officers misunderstand “the difference between the colloquial definition of obscenity and the legal definition of obscenity,” she said.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court follows U.S. Supreme Court holdings on obscenity, which refers to speech that is more violent, graphic and sexual than the seven dirty words of George Carlin fame, Tuthill said.
State police had not yet seen the lawsuit and had no immediate response, said Lt. Myra Taylor, a spokeswoman.
Matthew Walters admits he was already having a bad day on Dec. 19, 2008, as he helped with deliveries at his friend’s pizza shop in northeastern Pennsylvania. His car had gotten stuck earlier in the snow piled by the curb, so he double-parked with his hazard lights blinking as he waited inside the store for his next order. After about 10 minutes, he looked out and saw Mahanoy City Officer Christopher Zubris writing him a ticket.
“Using words of his own choosing, including profanity, Mr. Walters expressed his dismay with his local law enforcement official,” his suit states.
More than a year later, Walters seems mostly embarrassed at being arrested in front of the business, as customers came and went. But he also believes the case points to a bigger problem.
“You can’t be arrested for saying that to an officer,” the 31-year-old plumber told The Associated Press. “I could see if you’re out of line, threatening them. I didn’t do anything like that. It was clear-cut. I said what I said, and he said ‘You’re arrested.’”
Mahanoy City Police Chief Mark Wiekrykas has not yet seen Walters’ lawsuit. However, he said he has told his officers in the borough, which has fewer than 5,000 residents, about the evolving case law on what constitutes disorderly conduct.
In Pennsylvania alone, the city of Scranton in 2008 agreed to pay a woman $19,000 plus legal costs after she was charged for swearing at her overflowing toilet. The city of Pittsburgh paid $50,000 last year to settle a free-speech lawsuit filed by a man cited for an obscene gesture. In that case, the ACLU found city police had written 188 disorderly conduct citations over a 32-month period for swearing, gestures and other disrespectful conduct.
Not all cases involve profanities tossed at police. In the second suit filed Wednesday, Lona Scarpa said she was cited after contacting police to report that a motorcycle rider had tried to run her down as she walked with a friend. When state police investigated, they said if they charged him, they would have to charge her as well for the string of epithets she uttered as he rode off.
Both Walters and Scarpa were acquitted of the disorderly conduct. Their suits allege retaliation by police because they exercised their First Amendment rights.
The state police citations reviewed as part of Scarpa’s suit include “a really, really creative, colorful rainbow of curse words,” Tuthill said.
She did not notice any geographic or other patterns emerge in the complaints, which spanned the commonwealth.
“They’re kind of funny to read through, actually,” she said.