November 25, 2009
Citation for Gesture Costs Pittsburgh
By Sean D. Hamill
PITTSBURGH — The City of Pittsburgh has agreed to pay $50,000 to a man who sued after being issued a disorderly conduct citation for gesturing offensively at a police officer.
Offensively? Musta been da bird.
The settlement, in which the city also agreed to retrain its officers in the limits of disorderly conduct law, was reached with Dave Hackbart, 35, after research undertaken by his lawyers found that police citations for swearing or offensive gestures were common here.
From March 2005 to July 2009, the research found, Pittsburgh officers cited 198 people for disorderly conduct on the basis of that sort of behavior, even though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has consistently found such citations unlawful on free speech grounds.
“Hopefully we’ll send a message to other police officers across the state, where this is a consistent problem, that this is not legal,” said Sara J. Rose, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which helped represent Mr. Hackbart in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.
Pittsburgh’s deputy police chief, Paul J. Donaldson, said the city had retrained officers in the law twice since 2006 but would do so again, to emphasize that “the disorderly conduct statute can’t be used to protect the police from all verbal indignities.”
Mr. Hackbart was charged on April 10, 2006, while trying to parallel-park. According to his lawsuit, another car pulled up and blocked him from parking, frustrating Mr. Hackbart, who gestured with his middle finger at the other driver.
I knew it.
When a third driver objected to the gesture, Mr. Hackbart delivered it to him as well.
That driver turned out to be an officer, Sgt. Brian Elledge, who wrote the citation. Mr. Hackbart was found guilty by a magistrate and fined court costs. “I felt really let down by the system,” Mr. Hackbart said. “I challenged it as a matter or principle.” Of the $50,000 settlement, he will get $10,000; the rest goes to his lawyers.
Pyrrhic victory, pun intended.
Mr. Hackbart said that the case had raised his interest in law and that he had he quit a job as a waiter and gone back to school to become a paralegal. He is considering going on to law school. “A lot of good things have come out of this,” he said. “Hopefully it’s a big deterrent and it helps other people down the road who are in my shoes.”