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Pennsylvania

Police to stop citing people for swearing

| Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011

Those who swear in public -- even at a police officer -- could be accused of lacking in class, common sense and good manners, but state and Pittsburgh police agree they won't be charged with a crime if that's all they are doing.

The state police agreed Tuesday to stop citing the public for cursing as part of a settlement of a federal free-speech lawsuit.

Pittsburgh police said they stopped issuing similar citations after a federal judge ruled in March 2009 that a city policeman violated a Butler County man's First Amendment right to free speech by citing him for giving the middle finger to a motorist and the officer during a parking dispute.

"Using profanity toward someone, whether an officer or not, is just not one of those things that you can put someone in jail for," said Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented a Luzerne County woman who filed the suit against state police. "It might not be very smart, but you have a constitutional right to do that."

Roper said the Pennsylvania Supreme Court years ago deemed such speech legal as long as it's neither threatening nor obscene.

The Luzerne County case involved Lona Scarpa, 35, who called police after a motorcyclist swerved toward her as she walked with a friend. When troopers investigated, they ended up charging Scarpa for the string of epithets she admits uttering at the offender.

Scarpa successfully challenged the disorderly conduct ticket, which carried a $300 fine. She let the ACLU pursue the free-speech lawsuit.

State police have agreed to pay $17,500 to Scarpa, her criminal lawyer and the ACLU, and to retrain officers and monitor the agency's disorderly conduct tickets. A lawyer for the department did not immediately return a phone message.

The ACLU found during the court case that state troopers issued more than 700 disorderly conduct citations for swearing in a recent one-year span, and local police hundreds more.

Pittsburgh City Council eventually approved a $50,000 settlement to a federal suit filed by David Hackbart of Butler after prosecutors dropped the disorderly conduct citation he was given because of the parking dispute.

At that time, the ACLU found city police had written 188 disorderly conduct citations over a 32-month period for swearing, gestures and other disrespectful conduct.

"Just because someone calls us a name, that in and of itself is not a crime," Assistant city police Chief Maurita Bryant said last night. "People cuss us out all the time."

However, Bryant said police will cite those whose actions go beyond a few four-letter words or obscene gestures.

"If someone is standing in the street screaming and hollering and causing a disturbance, that's something else. If an officer feels you are threatening them or someone else, or if you don't stop when an officer tells you to, they will take immediate and swift action," Bryant said. "It's the totality of the circumstances."

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