A US federal judge in Missouri agreed that flashing headlights to warn other drivers of a speed trap was protected free speech. Will this ruling set a broader precedent?
A federal judge on Monday issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the St. Louis County town of Ellisville from arresting and prosecuting drivers who flash headlights to warn other drivers of nearby police and speed traps.
The order by U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey in St. Louis stems from a lawsuit filed by Ellisville resident Michael Elli. On Nov. 17, 2012, Elli flashed his headlights to warn oncoming vehicles of a radar set up by Ellisville police. A flash of headlights is a common way motorists communicate to oncoming drivers of either a dangerous situation or the presence of police — in essence, a warning to slow down.
An officer saw the flash and pulled over Elli, who could have faced a fine of up to $1,000 if convicted. The charge was later dismissed.
The American Civil Liberties Union sued on Elli's behalf, claiming the arrest violated his First Amendment right to free speech.
ACLU Legal Director Tony Rothert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it was the first federal court ruling on the issue anywhere in the country. “It is legal in Missouri to communicate in this manner,” he said, “and detaining, ticketing or arresting someone for the content of their speech is illegal.”
Rothert says other cities and towns in Missouri and Illinois have arrested drivers for flashing their headlights. Last month, in Frisco, Texas, a man was arrested and cited for allegedly violating a city ordinance for holding a homemade sign warning drivers about speed traps. He's challenging the arrest in court.
Ellisville City Attorney George Restovich said the city changed the policy after the case went to court and no longer pulls over people for flashing headlights.
"The reality is that the injunction doesn't change the way the city has been operating for the past 12 months," Restovich said.
At a hearing on the lawsuit last year, Ellisville officials made the case that flashing headlights could interfere with a police investigation. But Autrey said in his ruling that the flashing of headlights "sends a message to bring one's driving in conformity with the law — whether it be by slowing down, turning on one's own headlamps at dusk or in the rain, or proceeding with caution."
Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said that since filing the suit, his office has heard from many other drivers across the state complaining about similar police practices.
"It is important that law enforcement officers in other jurisdictions take note of this federal court decision and the ACLU-MO's commitment to free speech," Mittman said in a statement.
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