Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Making A Federal Case Out of It

"Meanwhile," as they say, "life goes on here in western Pennsylvania." Indeed it does, in our construction zones as well as in our courtrooms:

A New Castle man filed a federal lawsuit yesterday claiming his free-speech rights were violated last year when he was cited for using an obscene gesture at a construction worker.
Right away, two words come to mind: "Frivolous" and "Precedent". How silly is it that something as stupid as a middle finger turns into a federal case? And, depending on the outcome of the case, how will the eventual decision affect future trials involving women who are offended by leers and wolf whistles while walking past construction sites?

Thomas Burns had been frustrated by a traffic delay during road work on April 27, 2005, on Broadhead Road in Center Township, Beaver County. As he passed by construction workers operating the "Stop-Go," sign, he flipped them his middle finger.
Those guys (and quite often gals) who operate the handheld traffic signs are the ones for whom I have the most sympathy. They aren't doing the heavy work, but they are just inches away from moving traffic, and that puts them at the mercy of any driver who is overcome with road rage. It's dangerous work.

That was enough to raise the ire of the workers, who radioed the incident to Center Township Police Officer Samuel J. Johns, who was parked down the road, the lawsuit said.
Flipping the bird is not a violent act. The motorist expressed his displeasure at being forced to wait, and attempted to move on. Road crews, at least the ones that I see, normally consist of big tough men. One does not expect them to call the cops when they get their feelings hurt. My sympathy evaporates at this point.

The officer pulled Mr. Burns over and issued him a citation for obscene disorderly conduct, which he said would arrive by mail.
I sure hope he didn't wait anxiously by his mailbox in anticipation of said citation's said arrival, because...

In his lawsuit, Mr. Burns said he never received the ticket, and in July, a constable showed up at his home to arrest him for failing to appear at a hearing.
Perhaps the letter was returned for insufficient postage; should not a missive of such import be insured, and require signature upon delivery? It sounds like a set-up. It makes you wonder whether the arresting constable was wearing a SWASTIKA armband. That's what I would be looking for if someone showed up over two months later to haul me off to the slam.

Mr. Burns later appeared in magistrate's court to plead not guilty, and the charge was ultimately dismissed when neither Officer Johns nor the victim showed up at a hearing in October.
Why OF COURSE they weren't going to show up. They made the man's life hell for half a year. Surely that's punishment enough. "He'll soon forget all about it," they might well have been thinking.

Yesterday, Mr. Burns filed his lawsuit, claiming his First Amendment right to free speech was violated, as were his 14th Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable search and seizure and malicious prosecution.
On the other hand, maybe he wants to make sure that they never forget about it. Considering the facts as presented in the newspaper, this thing has gone past the point of frivolity. A man has been wronged, and he deserves justice. You can tell he's serious just by his choice of lawyer:

Mr. Burns' lawsuit, which names both the township and Officer Johns, was filed by the same lawyer, Harlan Stone, who won a $9,000 settlement in a similar case in 2004.
See? There already is a precedent. Good luck to Mr. Burns. A victory in court would keep the civil authorities just that much further away from exercising absolute power.

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