A federal judge has ruled that a ticked-off motorist who was arrested for calling the upstate hamlet of Liberty "tyranny" and writing a few choice epithets on a speeding ticket can sue the village and recover damages from the prosecutor for violating his right to spout off.
Willian Barboza, a Connecticut man ticketed in 2012 while passing through Liberty on Route 17, its main highway, paid the ticket by mail, but crossed out "Liberty," wrote in "tyranny" and added sexually derogatory language about village workers.
The village court rejected the payment, and ordered him to appear in person. When Barboza came to Liberty, he was arrested by two police officers on orders of the district attorney on a charge of "aggravated harassment," handcuffed and held for hours. The charges were eventually dismissed.
"I find, unsurprisingly, that defendants violated plaintiff's First Amendment rights," said White Plains U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel. "Expressions like the ones at issue here . . . though crude and offensive to some, did not convey an imminent threat and was made in the context of complaining about government activity."
Seibel, according to a transcript of her Sept. 10 bench ruling distributed Tuesday by the New York Civil Liberties Union, found that 60 people had been prosecuted in Liberty under the harassment law for using language likely to cause "annoyance or alarm."
It was ruled unconstitutional by the state Court of Appeals in 2014, but the judge said that it should have been obvious that Barboza's spouting off was protected. She said prosecutor Robert Zangla was liable for authorizing the arrest, and the village would have to stand trial on a claim that it failed to train police about the First Amendment.
Barboza's lawyer, Stephen Bergstein, said his client was frustrated because there are many speeders on Route 17, and he was singled out. "This was blowing off steam," Bergstein said. "People blow off steam all the time. What he did, a lot of people do."
"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," Barboza said in a statement.
The judge has ordered settlement discussions. Lawyers for Liberty did not return a call. Zangla's lawyer, Sullivan County Attorney Samuel Yasgur, said he didn't agree with the ruling, which said Zangla was not entitled to immunity, and was considering an appeal.