(MintPress) – On Aug. 6, 2011, Edison, N.J. resident Robert Bell left the Slaughtered Lamb Pub in New York City around 10 p.m. Though he did partake in consuming a few alcoholic beverages that evening, Bell was “far from intoxicated” when the 26-year-old decided to raise his middle finger after walking past three Greenwich Village police officers for “one to two seconds.”
Unfortunately for Bell, he didn’t see the fourth officer who was walking behind his fellow officers. The officer saw Bell’s gesture and arrested him. While arresting Bell, the officer asked him if he thought his gesture was funny, and according to the lawsuit, Bell told the officer he did it because he doesn’t like cops.
Held in the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) 6th Precinct stationhouse for about two hours where he was taunted about his sexuality and charged with disorderly conduct for making an “obscene gesture” and causing “public alarm and annoyance,” Bell felt his First Amendment rights were violated and fought the charges.
“I don’t know what laws they’ve made up in their head,” Bell said. “I don’t know who’s a good cop and who’s a bad cop … I was more than a little bit scared. I knew I was within my rights, but that does not mean anything when the only people in charge of your custody are the police.”
Represented by the New York Civil Liberties Union, Bell pleaded not guilty to the charge in October 2011 and his case was dismissed after the officer who filed the police report failed to appear in court.
“I’ve never seen a single case in New York saying that a middle finger is an obscene gesture under the disorderly conduct statute,” said Bell’s attorney Robert Quackenbush, who specializes in civil rights law. “[The police are] expected to be able to absorb a certain amount of criticism,” he added. “The targets of this gesture didn’t see it. It was just about squashing dissent.”
After his victory in court, Bell filed a lawsuit against the city, charging police with violating the Constitution, assault, false arrest, imprisonment and inflicting emotional distress, said Quackenbush. And on Tuesday, Bell won a $15,000 settlement from the city.
Bell said he felt “vindicated” by the decision and says he’ll give the NYPD the finger again. “If I thought [an officer] was in the wrong for something, I would do it,” he said. “I would just ensure that I prefaced any criticism with ‘with all due respect.’”
When asked what he’ll do with the money, Bell said he plans to attend law school and hopes to clarify what actions are allowed under the law in New York City.
Bell’s attorney Quackenbush said he believes the city opted to settle the civil liberties suit because city lawyers knew they had “no chance” at trial. “With outrageous facts like these, they knew they didn’t want a jury to hear about it,” he said.
City attorney Ryan Shaffer, who handled the case, said in a statement that the settlement is not an admission of NYPD error. “The settlement is in the parties’ best interest,” Shaffer said. “It is not an indication of any police wrongdoing.”
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