Speed Trap Warning Via Driver Headlight Flashing Protected By First Amendment, Federal Judge Rules
A federal judge in Missouri ruled that police violated the constitution when they fined a man who had been warning drivers of an upcoming speed trap with his headlights.
The man, Michael Elli of Ellisville, had flashed his headlights to warn other motorists that there were police nearby.
Police pulled Elli over for the flash and charged him with a moving violation for "[f]lashing lights on certain vehicles . . . warning of RADAR ahead," The Wall Street Journal reported.
Elli faced a $1,000 fine if convicted. Although the charges were dropped, Elli and the ACLU decided to sue the city for taking him to court in the first place.
The judge on the case, Henry E. Autrey, ruled that prohibiting headlight flashing is a violation of the first amendment. He also reasoned that the tactic actually makes the roads safer because it "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."
Police claimed that they had stopped pulling people over for flashing headlights before Monday's ruling, saying that the city had changed its policy after the case first went to court a year ago.
"The reality is that the injunction doesn't change the way the city has been operating for the past 12 months," said Ellisville City Attorney George Restovich.
Judge Autrey thinks that this is a lie, and is deeply disturbed by the practice.
"The chilling effect of Ellisville's policy and custom of having its police officers pull over, detain, and cite individuals who are perceived as having communicated to oncoming traffic by flashing their headlamps and then prosecuting and imposing fines upon those individuals remains, regardless of the limited special order," Autrey said. "As the other preliminary injunction factors are presumed when a likelihood of success on a First Amendment claim is shown, the Court will issue a preliminary injunction."
ACLU attorney Tony Rothert said that he hopes Monday's ruling will finally change the practice, telling KTVI that, "When someone is communicating in a public street, [he is] expressing [himself] in a way that's protected by the First Amendment."