PHILADELPHIA — Firing off a few curse words can't be charged as a crime anymore in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania — at least when state police are involved.
State police have agreed to stop citing the public for cursing as part of a settlement Tuesday of a federal free-speech lawsuit.
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The American Civil Liberties Union represents Pennsylvanians who have been ticketed for cursing at an overflowing toilet, a swerving motorcyclist and a parking ticket issuer.
The citations can lead to hundreds of dollars in fines and legal costs, not to mention the occasional jail stint.
"Using profanity toward someone, whether an officer or not, is just not one of those things that you can put someone in jail for," ACLU lawyer Mary Catherine Roper said Tuesday. "It may not be very smart, but you have a constitutional right to do that."
Yet state troopers issued more than 700 disorderly conduct citations for swearing in a recent one-year span, and local police hundreds more, the ACLU learned during the court case.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court years ago deemed such speech legal as long as it's neither threatening nor obscene, Roper said.
The case settled Tuesday involves Lona Scarpa, a 35-year-old Luzerne County woman who called police after a motorcyclist swerved toward her as she walked with a friend. When troopers investigated, they ended up charging Scarpa for the string of epithets she admits uttering at the offender.
Scarpa successfully challenged the disorderly conduct ticket, which carried a $300 fine. But she also let the ACLU pursue the free-speech lawsuit.
"I'm obviously very happy about it," Scarpa said Tuesday night. "I'm really happy no one else is going to go through the distress I went through, because my citation said I could get 90 days in jail."
State police have agreed to pay $17,500 to Scarpa, her criminal lawyer and the ACLU, and to retrain officers and monitor the agency's disorderly conduct tickets. A lawyer for the department did not immediately return a phone message Tuesday.
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A second ACLU lawsuit filed against a local department remains pending. That case involves an exasperated delivery driver who was briefly jailed in December 2008 for cursing at a Mahanoy City officer over a parking ticket.
Matthew Walters had already gotten his car stuck in the snow in northeastern Pennsylvania that day. He was helping out at a friend's pizza shop — and double-parked — when he expressed what another lawyer on the case once tactfully called "his dismay with his local law enforcement official."
Like Scarpa, Walters was eventually acquitted of disorderly conduct.
In perhaps the most memorable cursing case in Pennsylvania, the city of Scranton in 2008 paid $19,000 plus legal costs to a woman charged for swearing at her overflowing toilet.
And the city of Pittsburgh paid $50,000 last year to a man cited for an obscene gesture. The ACLU found city police had written 188 disorderly conduct citations over a 32-month period for swearing, gestures and other disrespectful conduct.
"If somebody's making a threat, or pushing and shoving and fighting, that's a different thing," Roper said. "But if people are cursing each other, you can't issue a criminal citation and subject them to hundreds of dollars in fees for bad manners."
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