SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A sidewalk chalker who talked back to police should not have been arrested and has the right to sue, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

No reasonable officer could have believed that Christopher Mackinney violated a state vandalism law or obstructed the police, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

Officers ``deserve the respect of their community, but ... must respect the right of individuals in that community to question their government and the role of the police,'' Judge Harry Pregerson said in the 3-0 ruling.

The court said Mackinney had just chalked the message ``A police state is more expensive than a welfare state _ we guarantee it'' on a Berkeley sidewalk in 1992 when officers ordered him to stop.

Mackinney underlined the last phrase of his message and, after an exchange with the officers, was jailed for three or four hours but never prosecuted.

Mackinney's lawsuit against officers and the city was dismissed by U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong, who said the sergeant on the scene believed the arrest was legal and had grounds to arrest Mackinney. The appeals court disagreed.

Deputy City Attorney Matthew Orebic declined comment, saying he had not seen the appellate ruling.