The New York Civil Liberties Union today announced a legal victory on behalf of a man who was handcuffed and arrested in Liberty, New York for protesting a speeding ticket by writing “fuck your shitty town bitches” on his ticket payment form. Last Thursday, the federal court in White Plains ruled that a prosecutor’s order to arrest the man violated the First Amendment. It also ruled that the Village of Liberty must stand trial on claims that it had failed to adequately train its police officers about the First Amendment.
“Instead of protecting freedom of speech, government officers in Liberty handcuffed me, arrested me for a crime and almost sent me to jail because I harmlessly expressed my frustration with a speeding ticket,” said Willian Barboza, who was 21 at the time of his arrest. “The people I trusted to uphold the law violated my most basic rights. I hope that by standing up for myself, other Americans will not be treated like criminals for complaining about their government with a few harmless words.”
In 2012 Barboza was pulled over for speeding in the Town of Liberty, located in Sullivan County in upstate New York. He pleaded guilty by mail, and when he paid his fine expressed his frustration by scratching out “Liberty” and replacing it with “Tyranny” and writing “fuck your shitty town bitches” on the payment form. His payment was rejected, and he was instead ordered to travel the two hours from his home to make a court appearance. At that court hearing, two police officers acting on the orders of an assistant district attorney arrested Barboza for allegedly violating the state’s former “aggravated harassment” statute. He was fingerprinted, handcuffed to a bench, and then driven to a different court in a separate town, where he was arraigned without a lawyer. He was then taken to the county jail in another town where he had to pay $200 in bail and was only released hours later.
In 2013, a judge dismissed the charges against Barboza, stating that “[n]o citation is necessary for this Court to determine that the language under the circumstances here, offensive as it is, is protected.”
The NYCLU and attorney Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich, LLP, lead counsel on the case, contended that the prosecutor and the police officers – sworn to uphold and enforce the law – had violated Barboza’s First Amendment rights and also contended that the Village of Liberty was liable for failing to train law enforcement to respect the First Amendment. In Thursday’s ruling in the Southern District of New York, the judge agreed that the assistant district attorney was liable for violating Barboza’s clearly established rights and also ruled that the village had to stand trial on the claim it had failed to properly train its officers.
“New Yorkers should not be afraid to protest or complain about a speeding ticket -- or any other government action -- because they might be dragged to jail for using a few harmless words,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “The First Amendment protects people’s right to express their opinions about the government, and our government is better for it.”
"We are delighted that the Court has ruled in Barboza's favor,” said Stephen Bergstein. “Freedom of speech protects everyone, even if they say something offensive."
The court ruled that the police officers, though likewise responsible for violating Barboza’s clearly established rights, are not liable because of the assistant district attorney’s participation in the arrest. Barboza’s attorneys, who contended that police officers who enforce the law should also be responsible for knowing it, are considering further options regarding the officers.