Vermont to pay $175,000 to man arrested for raising middle finger at state trooper

The state of Vermont agreed to pay $175,000 to settle a lawsuit filed after a man was charged with a crime for raising his middle finger at a state trooper, the American Civil Liberties Union said.

The ACLU’s Vermont chapter, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the man, accused state trooper Jay Riggen of subjecting Gregory Bombard to an “unnecessary traffic stop and retaliatory arrest” that violated his First and Fourth Amendment rights.

“This incident should never have happened in the first place,” Hillary Rich, an attorney for ACLU Vermont, said in a Wednesday statement. “Police need to respect everyone’s First Amendment rights — even for things they consider offensive or insulting.”

Riggen pulled Bombard over in St. Albans in February 2018 because he believed Bombard had raised his middle finger at him, according to the complaint the ACLU filed on Bombard’s behalf in 2021.

The lawsuit said Riggen questioned Bombard, who denied making the gesture, for “several minutes” before saying he was free to leave.

As he drove away, Bombard “cursed and displayed his middle finger,” the lawsuit said. Riggen then pulled him over again and said he was under arrest and that his “profane behavior in public” was disorderly conduct, according to the document.

Bombard was jailed and held for over an hour and his car was towed, the complaint said, and the Franklin County state’s attorney charged him with disorderly conduct. The ACLU said he was “forced to navigate a criminal proceeding for nearly a year” before that charge was dismissed.

The state’s attorney later filed a second charge of disorderly conduct against Bombard over the same incident for “recklessly [creating] a risk of public annoyance” by obstructing traffic when he was pulled over, though a court dismissed that charge before the settlement was reached.

Under the June 12 settlement, the state of Vermont will pay $100,000 in damages to Bombard and $75,000 in attorneys’ fees to the ACLU and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the two nonprofit organizations that represented him in the case and announced the agreement Wednesday.

According to the settlement, Riggen and the state of Vermont did not admit to the allegations against them in the lawsuit or any liability. The Vermont State Police and the Vermont governor’s office did not immediately respond to an overnight request for comment. The state police told NBC5 that Riggen retired from the force on May 31.

“With this settlement, I hope the Vermont State Police will train its troopers to avoid silencing criticism or making baseless car stops,” Bombard said, according to the ACLU Vermont press release. “And at least now I can pay my criminal attorney for defending me from the bogus charges and take my 88-year-old mother out for a nice dinner.”

In 2019, a federal appeals court ruled that yelling an expletive at a police officer was constitutionally protected speech and not grounds for arrest, weeks after another federal appeals court ruled that a Michigan woman’s constitutional rights were violated after she was stopped and ticketed for raising her middle finger at an officer.

The appeals court judge ruled that the “all-too-familiar gesture” is “protected by the First Amendment.”

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