Can You Go to Jail for Insulting a Police Officer?

Can You Go to Jail for Insulting a Police Officer?

If you’ve ever been tempted to call a police officer names, you’re hardly alone. After all, nobody likes getting a ticket, or being accused of a crime.

But can insulting a police officer get you into trouble in and of itself? The answer is a solid, “maybe.”


Insults are protected by the First Amendment.


In fact, this is one of the functions of the First Amendment. It was written to make sure people couldn’t be imprisoned just for criticizing, insulting, or poking fun at authorities.


This protection has been upheld by several Supreme Court cases, including:



All three of these cases deal with city ordinances restricting speech, though only the latter two, Lewis and Hill, deal specifically with yelling at, interrupting, or yelling obscenities at police officers.


In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled it’s legal to “flip the bird” to a police officer.


Given all this evidence you’re probably wondering where the solid “maybe” comes from. Shouldn’t it be cut and dried? Shouldn’t you be able to say whatever you want?


Your speech isn’t protected if it’s construed as a threat.


It’s a crime to threaten anyone under New York Penal Code 240.30; aggravated harassment. New York law treats this crime as a Class A misdemeanor.


It is unlikely harassment laws such as this one will ever be challenged in the Supreme Court. Anti-harassment laws are well-established all over the country. And while our law doesn’t specifically mention police officers, it doesn’t have to. A police officer is a person, and that’s enough.


Freedom of speech is poor protection if the officer decides to arrest you for something else.


Like anyone, police officers tend to react poorly to insults. Unlike just anyone, police officers have the power to do something about it.


They can’t arrest you for insulting them, but they can arrest you for “obstruction,” or for “disorderly conduct.” They can find some ridiculous reason to arrest you, and while a good lawyer should be able to deal with the problem, the arrest will still disrupt your life.


In addition, if you succumb to the urge to insult police officers while they’re arresting you for something more legitimate, the body cam footage could wind up being used against you in court. The best thing you can do with a police officer, period, is to remain calm and quiet, to say as little as possible, and to reach out to a lawyer when necessary.


Freedom of speech is poor protection, period.


Tragically, even some very low-key verbal altercations with the police, such as admitting to being annoyed at being pulled over, have resulted in excessive and even deadly uses of force. Some police officers are not very well-trained, some have huge egos, and some believe they can do whatever they want. This is not a good combination.


Remember, police officers are armed and are often in the position of power when a confrontation occurs.  It can be difficult to hold them accountable, and you can only hold them accountable after they’ve done something to either wrongfully arrest you or physically harm you.


Stay safe out there.


See also:


What is the Definition of Police Misconduct in NYC?


5 Dumb Moves to Avoid When You’re Facing Criminal Charges in NYC


When Words Can Be Criminal: Harassment Defense in New York


You Were Arrested for What?