Cobb County Woman Jailed For Cursing At Cops Wins $100K Settlement Against County

Credit Jason Getz / Associated Press

Two years ago, a woman cursed at Cobb County police. They took her to jail.

Now, the county has to pay that woman $100,000.Broadcast Version

Amy Barnes was riding her bike down Austell Road on Easter Sunday 2012 when she saw something she says happens all the time in her neighborhood. “I saw yet another African American stopped for doing nothing other than being outside while black,” says Barnes.

Barnes says she just “couldn’t stand it anymore,”so she yelled at the officers as she rode by. We cannot print what she said to them, but she cursed at the officers and gave them the finger.

The officers arrested Barnes and took her to jail where she was kept in solitary confinement overnight. The Cobb County Police Department says the confinement was for Barnes’ protection because she is hearing impaired. A judge dismissed the criminal charges against Barnes last year, but she sued for violation of her constitutional rights. Now Barnes has settled with the county.

Barnes says she is relieved the case is over. “It’s a shot across the bow,” says Barnes. “And it basically sent a message across this whole nation that free speech shall remain free or somebody’s going to keep paying.”

Cynthia Counts, one of Barnes’ lawyers, says she would not have talked to police as her client did but that Barnes was well in her rights as proven by the civil settlement.

“I think that it’s going to send a message that people have rights, and some people are going to disagree,” says Counts. “But it’s a bedrock principal of the First Amendment that caustic speech, offensive speech is certainly protected.”

Barnes and her attorney see this as a First Amendment case: the right to free speech. However, WABE legal analyst Page Pate says what made it a $100,000 case was the fact that police arrested and jailed Barnes when they could have issued her a citation instead. “They arrested her without legitimate cause,” says Pate. “She wasn’t doing anything to break any particular law, so it was an unlawful arrest and therefore violation of the Fourth Amendment.”

So where is the line? What can you say to police? Pate says it is not so much what you say but how you say it. “If you say something that in some way interferes with their ability to question someone or apprehend someone, then you’ve crossed the line. Then your comments have become obstructive, and you can be arrested for that.”

I asked Cobb County Police spokesman Michael Bowman whether this will change how the department’s officers are trained. “If there’s a need for training, updated or mandated, we will do so,” said Bowman. “But with this ruling having just come down, they haven’t had a chance to enact any of that, and they’re still looking at it.”

Barnes says she plans to use some of her settlement money to go to law school.