Cobb County is paying $100,000 to a woman who police arrested for shouting profanity to protest their actions.
Amy Elizabeth Barnes, a well-known political activist, sued in federal court saying the county violated her First Amendment rights and maliciously prosecuted her when it jailed her on charges of disorderly conduct and the use of abuse words to “incite an immediate breach of the peace.”
She had been shouting “Cobb police suck” and “(Expletive) the police” and raising her middle finger while riding her bicycle past two officers questioning an African-American man outside a convenience store on Easter Sunday 2012.
“Ms. Barnes’ comments to the police may have been offensive, but no one in the United States of America should be chased down and arrested for their free speech,” said lawyer Cynthia Counts, who represented Barnes in her civil and criminal litigation. “The officers argued that it was a bad neighborhood and you shouldn’t disrespect the police because it could create issues,” she added.
Counts noted federal courts had overuled such reasoning after 1918 sedition laws made “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government, flag or armed forces — or that caused people to view government institutions with contempt — a felony.
On Tuesday, the county commission authorized a $100,000 settlement in the civil lawsuit, said spokesman Robert Quigley. In 2013, the county solicitor also lost the criminal case against Barnes.
Calls to Cobb County lawyers were not immediately returned.
Officers Brian Scurr and Dipa Patel arrested Barnes after she shouted her phrases while they were questioning a man at a store near Marietta on Austell Road, according to Judge Melodie Clayton’s order acquitting Barnes in her criminal trial.
The judge noted Barnes did not confront the officers and had ridden off on her bicycle before the officers quit questioning the man and pursued and arrested her.
“The evidence at trial showed that the Defendant was not engaged in a face-to-face confrontation with the officers which tended to incite an immediate breach of the peace when the words were spoken,” Clayton wrote. “In addition, the word “su*k”, used as an epithet, is now common enough in modern society that it cannot reasonably provoke a threat of violence. The defendant’s other statement, “(expletive) the police,” was a fleeting epithet that was insulting and inappropriate, but it did not create an immediate threat and danger of violence.
“The defendant’s statements, although offensive to this court, clearly constitute political speech,” Clayton wrote. “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
Civil-rights lawyer Gerry Weber, who also represented Barnes, said what are known as “contempt of cop” arrests are prompting more civil litigation around the country. Currently the City of Atlanta faces such a case, he said.
In the Barnes case, the cash settlement was higher than some other cases because she spent a day and night in jail, including six hours in solitary confinement, Weber said.
“I think this was right in the ballpark in how these cases are resolved” financially, Weber said.
Barnes was most recently in the news in 2013 when she was arrested after her then 4- and 5-year-old children were found playing by themselves in a school playground three blocks from her home on Wanda Circle.
Authorities investigated and arrested the then 30-year-old Barnes and John Galczynski, then 58, after reportedly finding raw sewage, feces, dirt, moldy food and dog food on the floors, exposed electrical wires throughout the house, according to the arrest warrant.
They also found a German shepherd in dire need of medical care. The pet was suffering from a skin infection and had lost much of its hair, the warrant said.
They are currently facing charges of deprivation of a minor, reckless conduct and cruelty to animals in the unresolved case in Cobb Superior Court, according to court records.
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