Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
Cook v. Bd. of the Cty. Comm’rs, 966 F. Supp. 1049 (D. Kan. 1997).
This case addresses the following issue:
What kind of language or conduct gives rise to disorderly conduct in Kansas?
This case explored the question of what kind of language or conduct was viewed as giving rise to disorderly conduct. In exploring this question, the court held that language or conduct which tended to reasonably arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others could give rise to disorderly conduct. Id. at 1052.
In this case, a highway patrol officer was parked in his patrol car monitoring the speed of passing vehicles. Id. at 1051. While passing the highway patrol officer in his car, the driver “flipped the bird” to the officer. Id. As a result, the officer stopped the car and arrested the driver for disorderly conduct, a class C misdemeanor. Id. Following the arrest, the driver brought a lawsuit against the officer claiming that the officer wrongfully arrested him and prosecuted him for disorderly conduct. Id. The case was heard by the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas. Id.
In addressing this case, the court first looked to the disorderly conduct statute. The statute stated, “Disorderly conduct is, with knowledge or probable cause to believe that such acts will alarm, anger or disturb others or provoke an assault or other breach of the peace . . . using offensive, obscene, or abusive language or engaging in noisy conduct tending reasonably to arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others.” Id. (this is the Kansas statute from 1997 but we have a similar one today) With this knowledge, the court determined that the main issue in this case was whether the officer reasonably could have believed that the driver was engaged in disorderly conduct. Id. at 1052. According to Kansas law, an individual was guilty of disorderly conduct when he or she expressed “fighting words to another”—words which by their very utterance inflicted injury or tended to incite an immediate breach of peace. Id. at 1051. Additionally, the court concluded that disorderly conduct included language or conduct which tended to reasonably arouse alarm, anger, or resentment in others. Id. at 1052. With regard to this case, the court determined that a reasonable officer could not have believed that the driver’s actions of flipping the officer the bird rose to the level of disorderly conduct. Id. Moreover, the court concluded that the First Amendment protected a significant amount of verbal criticism and challenge directed at police officers, and this freedom was one of the principal characteristics which distinguished between a free nation from a police state. Id. at 1051.
In conclusion, according to Kansas courts, an individual can be found guilty of disorderly conduct for using language or initiating conduct that tends to reasonably arouse alarm, anger or resentment in others. Id. at 1052.