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Vermont pays $175,000 to man arrested for giving the middle finger to state trooper

A man in a vest leans against a car.
Owen Leavey
Greg Bombard, 57, was arrested in 2018 after giving a Vermont State Police trooper the middle finger. He sued the state for violating his constitutional rights, and the state just agreed to settle the case for $175,000.

It all started, Greg Bombard said, with a broken coffee maker. That’s what prompted him to get into his car and head to Dunkin’ on a winter day in 2018.

It ended this month when the state of Vermont paid Bombard $175,000 to settle the lawsuit that ultimately resulted from that short drive.

The settlement covers Bombard’s arrest that day by a state trooper who said the St. Albans Town man flipped him the middle finger — and a second, related citation nearly six years later, on Christmas Day.

Though the state has not admitted wrongdoing, the yearslong saga points to an enduring risk that, when emotions run high, police may misuse their powers to arrest citizens for offensive speech.

The Vermont State Police declined to discuss the case, as did the former trooper who arrested Bombard, Sergeant Jay Riggen. He took an occupational-disability-related retirement on May 31, a week before the settlement was signed.

Bombard, in an interview with Seven Days and Vermont Public, revealed new details about the series of events and explained how he became a reluctant spokesperson for the constitutional right to tell off a cop.

All he wanted on February 9, 2018, was a cup of coffee. Bombard, 51 at the time, had the day off from his customer service job at a big-box store. He was on his way back home from Dunkin’ with a cold brew, waiting at a red light on Main Street in St. Albans, when he saw flashing lights behind him. He pulled over near a mound of plowed snow.

Riggen strode to the Mazda and peered down at Bombard from beneath his broad-brimmed hat. Riggen spoke forcefully — an approach the trooper would later describe under oath as coming in “alpha.” Their interaction was captured on Riggen’s dashboard camera and a microphone he wore.

“You need something?” Riggen asked Bombard.

Bombard had no idea what he’d done wrong.

“It looked like you, uh, flipped me off as you were going by there,” Riggen pressed.

“I flipped you off?” Bombard asked, quizzically.

Minutes earlier, Riggen had passed Bombard while the two were driving in opposite directions along Main Street. Riggen claimed that Bombard had looked at him, lifted his fist and extended his left middle finger above the steering wheel. So the trooper switched on his dashboard camera, turned around and hit his lights.

Now, Bombard explained to the trooper that there was a misunderstanding. Bombard had been merely stretching his fingers over the rim of the wheel, cigarette in hand. “I was doing this,” he demonstrated.

Riggen didn’t sound convinced. It looked like Bombard had stuck his middle finger “up in my face,” he said.

Bombard shot back: “You must be really sensitive.”

“First of all, I’m not an overly sensitive person,” Riggen replied. “And it’s the first time in 12 years I’ve ever stopped someone who I thought flipped me off, so I don’t like that insinuation.”

He told Bombard he’d pulled him over to “make sure that you’re all right” and conceded that perhaps Bombard hadn’t flipped him the bird.

“So, I have a question,” Bombard said. “If someone flipped you off, what is the citation? What is the crime?”

Bombard chuckled.

Flipping off a cop, Riggen said, could serve as a way to get an officer’s attention, either “because they need assistance or they need to have a conversation.”

“Obviously it’s not normal behavior, so I’m going to have that conversation,” Riggen said.

Bombard told Riggen he planned to file a complaint against him. He kept asking questions.

The trooper walked away as Bombard was talking.

Then Bombard did something he says was out of character. As he pulled back into traffic, he showed Riggen his middle finger — for real, this time. He called out “A--hole!” and “F--- you!”

Riggen pulled Bombard over again. “I’m going to arrest him for disorderly conduct,” the trooper said over his radio. He called for backup.

Riggen ordered Bombard out of the car, on the grounds that he had engaged in “tumultuous” and “profane behavior in public.”

“You’re serious, sir?” Bombard said. “Oh, my God.”

Riggen scolded Bombard for having the “audacity” to flip off a trooper and call him an asshole.

He searched Bombard for weapons — finding only ChapStick — and handcuffed him. He took Bombard to the state police barracks for processing and had his Mazda towed.

“He humiliated me,” Bombard said.

The state police put out a press release about the arrest, including Bombard’s mug shot, and local newspapers reported the charge.

Bombard hired a lawyer, and nearly a year later, the state dropped the case. The crime he was accused of, disorderly conduct, is a kind of catch-all misdemeanor charge for unruly behavior. The law contains vague language about using “abusive or obscene language” in a public place, making “unreasonable noise,” or, as Riggen had pointed out, acting in a “tumultuous” way.

Bombard was not the first person to face a disorderly conduct charge for giving a cop the finger. The phenomenon was even the subject of a lengthy academic paper in 2008 whose author, American University Washington College of Law professor Ira Robbins, concluded that such arrests undercut trust in the police and violate the First Amendment rights of those who use the gesture. The cycle of citations and civil lawsuits has continued. Last year, Delaware State Police paid $50,000 to a man arrested for giving officers the middle finger.

Bombard had reservations about filing a civil lawsuit. He was wary of the attention it would bring. Bombard said he doesn’t harbor any animosity toward police. He’s received speeding tickets over the years, which, he said, he deserved.

“They were very respectful and very nice,” he said.

“The basis of a free society should be measured on how a person is allowed to speak to public officials. Are they allowed to speak against them? Are they allowed to speak with offensive language at those people?”
Jay Diaz, attorney

Following George Floyd’s murder and the swell of public protest over police misconduct in 2020, Bombard said, he decided to file Bombard v. Riggen and State of Vermont. He figured that suing the Vermont State Police might put him back in the news, but it would also put a spotlight on what he saw as police misconduct. He got in touch with the ACLU of Vermont and attorney Jay Diaz.

Diaz, now of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a Pennsylvania-based free speech group, saw the case as a test of civil liberties.

“The basis of a free society should be measured on how a person is allowed to speak to public officials,” Diaz said. “Are they allowed to speak against them? Are they allowed to speak with offensive language at those people?”

The civil lawsuit lingered. Late last year, Diaz entered Riggen’s dashcam video of the encounters into the court record. His organization also released the video on YouTube.

The public posting garnered more than 70,000 views and was picked up by national news outlets. Some of those viewers, in turn, felt compelled to register their own displeasure with Riggen’s behavior. Dozens taunted the trooper on Facebook. They found an old post announcing that Riggen, who taught communication skills at Community College of Vermont, had won a teaching excellence award in 2019. “Trooper Riggin [sic] is a tyrant, egomaniac,” one man from Las Vegas wrote.

In the days following the video’s release on December 18 last year, the state police dispatch center was inundated with calls about Riggen. The callers were relentless on Christmas Day, when state police headquarters were closed and calls to the nonemergency line were routed to the emergency communications center. Numerous callers — mostly men — complained, heckled or berated whichever dispatcher happened to pick up the phone. One man gave his name as “Big Bird.”

“Can I talk to a deputy or a trooper, or whatever you want to call one of your clowns?” another caller said, according to audio obtained by Seven Days and Vermont Public.

“You know what? I’m on a call with an overdose,” a dispatcher replied. “You can hold.”

Someone in the dispatch office — it’s not clear who — believed Bombard was behind the barrage. One dispatcher claimed she recognized his voice on the phone, according to internal emails, though there’s no evidence in the audio recordings or state police reports that Bombard had called.

Nonetheless, state police asked Franklin County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Oddy to deliver a criminal citation to Bombard at his home. The alleged crime: disorderly conduct by phone.

On Christmas evening, Oddy walked past strings of multicolored lights to Bombard’s front door. “I’m sorry to be the guy to deliver this to you on Christmas,” Oddy said.

“Did you call VSP a number of times today?” Oddy asked politely.

“Someone’s playing a game,” Bombard, who himself had been receiving messages online from strangers, replied. “You can check my phone.”

Sensing Bombard’s surprise, Oddy acknowledged that the way the state police had handled the situation seemed “a little silly.”

“If it was me, I probably would have called or come and been like, ‘Hey, why are you calling so much? What’s the deal here?’” Oddy told Bombard.

Franklin County State’s Attorney Bram Kranichfeld quickly dropped the charge because, he said, police lacked evidence. But Bombard said the holiday visit had been unsettling.

“I felt maybe it was some sort of corruption, some revenge on me,” he said. “But we don’t know.”

The errant Christmas Day citation is also covered by the $175,000 settlement, of which $100,000 will go to Bombard. The remaining $75,000 will be split between Diaz’s group and the ACLU of Vermont, Diaz said. It’s an unusually large amount for such a case, though the state did not admit wrongdoing as part of it. Nor did the state agree to make other changes that Bombard sought. Diaz had asked the state police to enshrine First Amendment protections more clearly in department policy and to provide more training to officers on the subject.

“That lies at the feet of the top brass,” Diaz said.

The free-speech line isn’t always clear. Diaz defended the Christmas Day callers who were inspired by his organization’s release of the dashcam video while also saying people should not harass public officials or try to “make people afraid.” Communications made to “terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, or annoy” another person are illegal under Vermont law.

Bombard’s experience hasn’t emboldened him to make further use of his middle finger to vent his frustration. In fact, just the opposite: “I don’t encourage anybody to do it,” he said.

“I was disrespectful,” Bombard conceded of that cold day in 2018. “I don’t think I should have been arrested for it, though.”

This story was reported in collaboration with Seven Days.

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Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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