Buffalo man caught in legal battle with police — over a shout

Photo credit: Samson Katt

by Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Board of Directors, GrowNYC, Co-founder, The Quiet Coalition, and Honorary Chair, Quiet American Skies

In 2016, lawyer and Buffalo resident Tony Rupp shouted at a car in downtown Buffalo that had its lights off and was “bearing down on two women crossing the street.” But what started out as a simple shout to deter what Rupp deemed unsafe driving would unfold into a noise violation ticket and later, a lawsuit against the City of Buffalo and the police commissioner regarding his First Amendment rights. This New York Times article by Jesse McKinley covers Rupp’s story.

I, and likely others reading this post, have also voiced concern when there’s inappropriate driving behavior on our block. But I have never received a noise violation for my shouts — even the louder ones when cars turn into my pedestrian crossing lane. In Rupp’s case, he received a noise violation from the driver, who happened to be a police officer. His loud voice was considered “unreasonable noise” under Buffalo’s noise bylaws.  

The noise violation was issued seven years ago and initiated a legal battle that went as far at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. This past January, the court ruled that Rupp could continue his lawsuit against the city and the police commissioner for “malicious prosecution, First Amendment retaliation and wrongful arrest.” Although the noise violation was dismissed in 2017, Rupp continued with his lawsuit. He is seeking only $1 in damages and legal fees to “send a message” to the city.

McKinley writes that this case raises questions about free speech. A lower court ruled that Rupp was not deserving of First Amendment rights because he didn’t know he was addressing a police officer. This decision was later overruled by the higher court. Rupp was motivated to pursue the case for so long because the officer who issued the violation was later involved in an altercation with an individual facing arrest, whom he punched and placed on his stomach. The individual later died and no charges were filed against the officer. Rupp believes that had his letter about his interaction with the police officer been taken seriously, this death may not have occurred. 

Norman Siegel, a former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, suggested that the ticket may have been issued to Rupp because when he was confronted by the officer (in the presence of two other officers), he may have “talked back” to them. Rupp’s experience with the officer and ensuing legal battle reshaped his professional practice, and he is now taking on more civil rights cases. 

While the focus in this article is First Amendment rights, I wish to address the noise issue directly. A police officer is using Buffalo’s noise ordinance to issue a violation to someone whose shouts are viewed as disturbing the quiet. I would like to know how many noise violations like this have been given out in Buffalo in the past few years.  

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