In a funny-not-funny example of the wide berth given to police officers under the qualified immunity doctrine, a Federal Court in Florida dismissed a wrongful arrest suit brought by Dillon Webb after he was arrested for displaying an “I Eat Ass” bumper sticker on his truck.
Dillon Shane Webb, 23, was stopped on a highway in Lake City, west of Jacksonville, by a Columbia County sheriff’s deputy who saw a sticker on his rear window that read, “I Eat Ass.” The officer cited Mr. Webb for violating Florida statute 847.001(10) which makes it a misdemeanor to possess “any sticker, decal emblem or other device attached to a motor vehicle containing obscene descriptions, photographs, or depictions . . . .”
Florida law further defines “obscene” as material which
(a) The average person, applying contemporary standards,
would find, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
(b) Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual
conduct as specifically defined herein; and
(c) Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or
Fla. Stat. § 847.001(10).
Dashcam footage shows the deputy telling Webb that the reason he was pulled over was “the derogatory sticker” on the back of his truck.
“How is that derogatory?” Webb asks.
“How is it not derogatory?” the deputy responds. “Some 10-year-old little kid sitting in the passenger seat of his momma’s vehicle looks over and sees ‘I EAT ASS’ and asks his mom what it means; how is she going to explain that?”
“That’s the parent’s job, not my job,” Webb responded. While he is correct, I would note that nothing in the Florida statute defines “obscene” as “offensive to children” or as a matter of fact as “derogatory.”
The officer then told Mr. Webb he would drop the citation if he just removed one letter from “Ass.” I guess “I Eat SS” might have been popular in WWII but what would “I Eat As” mean? Webb refused citing his First Amendment right to free speech, so the officer, instead of just issuing him a citation, physically arrested him for resisting an officer. The officer’s partner can then be heard on the dash cam saying “Tow his shit.” Hypocrisy, anyone? I hope there were no 10 year olds around to hear that.
Once the case got in front of a judge, the prosecutor dismissed all charges stating that Mr. Webb would have a full defense to the charge under the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Mr. Webb filed a civil rights suit seeking damages including reimbursement for the $225.00 he had to pay the tow company to get his truck back as well as the $275 he had to pay in court fees to get bonded out.
In dismissing the lawsuit, Judge Marcia Morales Howard of the Federal District Court for the Middle District of Florida relied on the doctrine of qualified immunity. The doctrine of qualified immunity protects from civil liability government officials who perform discretionary functions if the conduct of the officials does not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” In finding that the officers could not have known that ” I Eat Ass” was not obscene or was constitutionally protected speech, the court relied on the that this was the first time the officers ever pulled anyone over for violating this ordinance and that they called a supervisor for advice before charging Webb. The officers also provided affidavits attesting that they believed in good faith that “I Eat Ass” depicted sexual conduct so that it violated the language of the statute.
The case demonstrates the wide latitude affording police officers and (as the court stated) that their good faith subjective belief goes a long way to finding them immune. So to get out of a civil rights lawsuit, officers just need to say “Gosh , I really believed it was legal to do what I was doing” and then call their supervisor for advice. So two wrongs do make a right – at least in Florida.
The good news is that Mr. Webb took one for the team. Now, Florida officers are on notice that an “I Eat Ass” bumper sticker is not obscene. To provide a service to Florida readers of my blog, this is a link to the Etsy page for “I Eat Ass” materials: https://www.etsy.com/market/i_eat_ass_sticker
To read the decision click on this link”:
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