Question: Is telling the police to “F*** Off” a crime?

The law is clear that threatening another person with harm is a crime (it can be terroristic threats, simple assault or disorderly conduct).

But what if a person tells someone to “F*** Off” or says something along the lines of “F*** You”? And what if that someone is  a police officer? It is not a nice thing to say. And saying it to the police during a DUI stop or in any other scenario is not a smart thing to do. But is it a crime?

According to a recent Pennsylvania Superior Court case, the answer can be no. If the otherwise offensive statement is not (i) a threat of harm, (ii) unreasonably loud, or (iii) “obscene” (relating to sex in some way), telling someone (including the police) to “F*** Off” is not a crime.

The case is Commonwealth v. Pennix, decided in December of 2017. The defendant, Pennix, was attempting to enter a courthouse through security. She was carrying a personal bag that contained a knife and razor blades. She was asked to remove the bags and became argumentative, saying “F*** you police”, “F*** you I ain’t got time for this” and “I ain’t got no time for you f***ing police”.

Pennix was told to leave the building and, when she refused, was charged with disorderly conduct under the part of the statute that criminalizes “obscene language”.

Pennix was convicted at trial but the Superior Court reversed the conviction, holding that her language (while perhaps inappropriate) can not be considered “obscene”. The court reasoned that for language to be considered “obscene”, it must somehow relate to sexual conduct or material. Since Pennix’s use of the word “F***” was intended to insult and not relate to sex in any way, her conviction for disorderly conduct was reversed.

Of note, a section of the crime of disorderly conduct makes it a crime to make “unreasonable noise” in public. Perhaps if the prosecutor’s theory had been that Pennix made “unreasonable noise” as opposed to using “obscene” language, they may have been able to secure a conviction that would have been upheld on appeal.