Judge: Flashing Headlights To Warn of Speedtraps Is Protected by the First Amendment



Just last week, I passed a Yavapai County Sheriff's Office car parked along a rural stretch near absolutely nothing other than an intersection with unpaved track. He pulled out, turned on his lights, then sped by to pull over the guy in front of me who had been exceeding the ridiculously low speed limit by just a bit more than me. I passed on, then flashed my headlights at the next two cars I saw as a friendly warning. Cops don't necessarily like it when you do that, but I think it's common courtesy. Yet another federal judge just chimed in to say that it's also protected free speech.

In 2012, Missouri resident Michael Elli was pulled over and handed a $1,000 ticket for passing along just such a warning to motorists about a speedtrap. While the charges were dropped, he promptly sued Ellisville, Missouri, for its speech-discouraging ways.

Yesterday, he won.

U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Autrey pointed out (PDF) in his decision that Ellisville's ordinance forbidding any sort of flashing of lights by vehicles other than buses directly contradicts Missouri Department of Revenue (which licenses vehicles in the state) advice that lights should be flashed to signal emergencies. More importantly, people have the right to communicate with each other on the road.

Defendant suggested that flashing head lamps might be illegal interference with a police investigation; however, the expressive conduct at issue 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… Even assuming, arguendo, that Plaintiff or another driver is communicating a message that one should slow down because a speed trap is ahead and discovery or apprehension is impending, that conduct is not illegal.

Ellisville officials promised, cross their hearts and hope to die, that they would stop enforcing their law against First Amendment protected speech. Judge Autrey found that unconvincing.

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. 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.

Elli is represented by the ACLU of Missouri, which seeks to have the injunction made permanent—and the lesson that motorists can warn each other about speedtraps if they damned well please shared with law enforcement everywhere.

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  1. While it is nice that they can’t cite you for flashing your lights, the fact is that the law is whatever the cops say it is.

    So if you do that prepare to be pulled over and cited for some bullshit infraction or simply harassed and pestered.

    1. [T]he fact is that the law is whatever the cops say it is.

      Yes, until you get before a judge, or maybe until you’ve gone before several judges. But it has always been thus.

  2. It always gets tricky when a form of communication is okay for an approved statement but not for one less favored. Content discrimination is the pretty obvious conclusion here, and that’s not allowed under ordinary circumstances.

    Of course, the state could just ban headlight flashing in general, but that’s probably overbroad and also illegal.

    1. “Flashing of headlights is reserved for emergency vehicles and vehicles responding to aid the restoration of normal traffic flow after accidents”

      1. I didn’t mean to imply that states aren’t doing it anyway, just that it was illegal in any reasonable sense.

  3. If a cop isn’t a hazard to navigation, nothing is.

  4. Perhaps the police shouldn’t be able to flash their lights at us as a warning to pull our cars over?

  5. So this is Michael Elli of Ellisville?

    No wonder he won the lawsuit, the town is named after his family.

  6. I’m probably going to be missing the bulk of PM Links so I’m going to dump some stuff here and I’ll check back in after if anyone finds them interesting enough to relink in the links.

    Well this isn’t worrisome at all:

    Horrifying footage has emerged of anti-government demonstrators in Paris chanting “Juif, la France n’est pas pour toi” (“Jew, France is not for you”) on the eve on International Holocaust Memorial Day last Sunday.

    The thousands of demonstrators, drawn from a variety of far-right and fascist movements, together with a number of Catholic opponents of gay marriage, Dieudonn? supporters, and members of a modern day P?tainist movement.

    And dishearteningly:

    None of the French mainstream newspapers, including Le Monde and Lib?ration, appeared by Monday night to have reported the antisemitic slogans, preferring to focus on other elements of the demonstration.

    1. I thought antisemitism was a cherished cultural value of the French. It’s harder to argue that it isn’t than that it is.

      1. It’s a cultural value of most of Europe.

        1. and a fair part of the American left, yet Jews here keep voting Dem.

          1. Don’t confuse actual anti-semitism with a failure to embrace Israeli policies. There’s a big difference.

            You know, just as libertarians are frequently accused of racism for supporting freedom of association.


  7. “Officer, you know you can’t stop me for flashing my lights now.”

    “Flashing your lights? No, no, that’s not why I pulled you over. Making my job harder might make you an asshole, but it’s not illegal. So, please, flash away. No, I stopped you because your windscreen appears to be dirty.”

    1. That shit is why people are installing dash cams in their own vehicles. Not only do you clear your case, you get the cop put on the “don’t put him on the stand, he will be impeached” list.

  8. Oh Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association:

    Fischer, after recently watching a report on Beyonc?’s 2013 SuperBowl halftime show […], concluded that she was transformed in the midst of the performance and taken over by the “demonic spirit” called “Sasha”. Fischer also references satanic iconography found in the performance, including pentagram formations and the goat-headed demon Baphomet (like the one satanists hope to put on the lawn in front of the Oklahoma state capitol).

    “She felt the spirit come into her and quicken her and that’s how she was able to perform.”

    I almost feel bad for Mr. Fischer that nobody has taken him aside and stopped him from embarrassing himself.

    1. I felt the spirit come into me when she was performing. Thankfully the sound was turned down so I could really enjoy it.

    2. The quickening? Beyonc? is an immortal?

    3. Actually I got a lecture on celebrity success being due to selling one’s soul to the devil last week.

      The old man is completely lacking in any formal education, filled with magical thinking and a moral zealot who obsesses over what others are doing his every waking moment. He is also very lonely and a bit unstable.

      When I get the word that he finally ate his model 10 I will not be surprised one bit.

  9. Nigeria does something right

    Kind of…They’re building a “green enclave on the coast to protect the capital from the ravages of AGW:

    The multi-billion-dollar Eko Atlantic development claims it will safeguard against coastal erosion, “transform[ing] land lost to the power of the sea into an ocean-front city that will be one of the wonders of the 21st century.” It also bills itself as the economic catalyst that will nudge Lagos into the category of a truly global megacity, making it the “new financial epicenter of West Africa by the year 2020.”

    So far I’m not impressed, but then you read the criticisms and:


    1. (…Cont)

      Eko Atlantic is where you can begin to see a possible future ? a vision of privatized green enclaves for the ultra rich ringed by slums lacking water or electricity, in which a surplus population scramble for depleting resources and shelter to fend off the coming floods and storms. Protected by guards, guns, and an insurmountable gully ? real estate prices ? the rich will shield themselves from the rising tides of poverty and a sea that is literally rising. A world in which the rich and powerful exploit the global ecological crisis to widen and entrench already extreme inequalities and seal themselves off from its impacts ? this is climate apartheid.

      Well when you put it that way, Giz, I want property there.

      Meanwhile, the official website for Eko Atlantic promises a walkable community with office towers, parks, and outdoor restaurants. There’s a marina that would be not at all out of place in an episode of Miami Vice. A “spectacular central boulevard… similar in size to the Champs-?lys?es in Paris or Fifth Avenue in New York” will run down its center. There will be housing for 250,000 residents and jobs for 150,000 more.

      1. “Climate Apartheid”?

        So only white people can live in the new development? No?

        Ok, so not like Apartheid. Nice try though.

      2. I smell a scam. Pretty common style theft of investment money.

        Multi billion dollar development huh? Whose dollars? I am guessing US taxpayers.

      3. Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying that rich people have nicer stuff than poor people? Seems like a big “no shit”. That’s why people want to be rich and don’t want to be poor. You’d think that these people just discovered this.

    2. How long before they start force-relocating people into soviet block-style apartments?

      1. They’d actually be building the new city on land reclaimed from the sea like it’s Holland or something, so there shouldn’t be any forced relocation.

      2. I expect, Africa being Africa, that five days after it opens the concrete will dissolve and the whole shoddily constructed thing will slough into the sea.

    1. In Soviet Russia the asswipe’s you.

      Russian reversal jokes are the worst.

    2. The 200lb dick and balls is funny, but chaining it on is just mean.

      1. It’s vandalism. And since she couldn’t drive the car with it in it might also be some form of felony.

  10. If only there was some diirect negative consequence to state agents for violating the law of the land.

    1. You mean rule of law? That’s cute!

    2. There ar… oh, direct negative consequences.

      Never mind.

    3. Well, some of us are very disappointed in them, and they feel that keenly. Those hurt feelings force them to beat the crap out of us, which makes them feel even worse, which means, naturally, more beatings.

  11. Having grown up in New Mexico (and just FYI, anyone thinking of moving to the greater southwest proper- the entire thing is one big speed trap) motorists used all sorts of methods to communicate with each other about the location of cops and speed traps.

    Now that I live in the northwest, I still flash my lights but I get the distinct feeling that the locals wonder what the hell I’m doing. Probably because speed traps here are rare as hen’s teeth.

    1. I live in a state where ticket revenue goes to the capital, not the department. So the cops have no inventive to set up speed traps. It’s kinda nice. Cross the border and it’s a different story.

  12. HUZZAH!

    (I like that word and take every available opportunity to use it.)

    1. Harumph!

      1. I went to use that the other day, thinking it meant approval. I double checked it and here is what It said.

        An expression of disdain, disbelief, protest, or dismissal; a huff, grunt, or snort; To dislike, protest, or dismiss; An expression of disdain, disbelief, protest, refusal or dismissal

        I keep using that word, I do not think it means what I think it means.

        1. Mel Brooks has deceived me for the last time!

      2. I didn’t get a Harumph outa that guy.

    2. Hmm, I used it earlier today in another thread. Coincidence? I think not.

      1. I didn’t see it, but keep up the good work.

    3. QAPLA!

  13. This is an awesome ruling, which will promptly be ignored. So yay.

    What makes it all the more irritating is that flashing your lights to warn of a speed trap has the immediate effect (when it’s done to me anyway) of making the potential speeder slow down. Meaning, it encourages drivers who maybe were going a little fast to slow down to the proscribed speed and therefore (theoretically according to our wise overlords) act more safely.

    Our public safety officers, who care for nothing so much as helping the citizenry lead safe and productive lives, should celebrate such action. The imaginary public safety officers, that is. Not the real ones, who are mostly focused on revenue generation and violence.

    1. Yes, why on Earth would they oppose this if public safety were even remotely a concern? They oppose it for two obvious reasons: (1) it’s an act of defiance by ordinary citizens, and (2) it deprives the state of revenue.

      We all know this, yet plenty of states criminalize something that is clearly protected speech.

      1. Your reasons are probably correct, but there are reasons for traffic stops other than traffic safety.

        Wonder if you could be charged with aiding an abetting for flashing a real fugitive.

    2. This is an awesome ruling, which will promptly be ignored.

      In which cases the cops doing the ignoring need to be made personally liable, since they’re deliberately violating a law where there’s a long precedent of “For the 324838274th time, you can’t do this.”

      To pay the settlemtns, the cops need to be dragged out of their houses when the house goes on the auction block to pay off the settlement. Preferably, dragged out at gunpoint, and in full view of their children.

      1. “Settlements”, of course. This is a topic that really angries up my blood the the point that my spelling deteriorates.

      2. Not only that, but to be prosecuted for unlawful detention and civil rights violations. I think after the first twenty former cops who have to guard their virgin assholes in general population, the rest will get the message.

    3. A lot like cops harassing people walking home drunk from the bar. Would you rather I fucking drove?

  14. Sochi bathroom rules

    No fishing in the toilets…

    1. I’m not clicking on that.

    2. What’s the guy in the bottom right panel doing? And is it common for people to shit in the tank instead of the bowel?

      1. He’s injecting drugs, and I think the other guy is using the seat as a squat toilet instead of sitting on the toilet seat.

        1. They have the no squatting signs in airports all over Asia. Some cultures squat.

          1. Apparently people who use squat toilets don’t get hemorrhoids.

      2. Upper deckers? Not common, necessarily.

        1. They were in college.

      3. And is it common for people to shit in the tank instead of the bowel?

        Ah, the dreaded upper decker.

      4. Upper deckers are the funniest thing in the world. Unfortunately I only learned about the concept of an upper decker after I was old enough that I wasn’t going to the sort of parties where that sort of thing would be appropriate.

    3. What does that last one mean? No throwing zeppelin models into the toilet while sitting spread eagle in front of it?

      1. I think he’s injecting himself with some sort of drug.

        1. I don’t inject a lot of drugs so please excuse my ignorance, but why is the guy sitting on the floor to do that?

          1. Because he is also showing his balls to the Republican congressman in the next stall.

            1. Those Russians couldn’t hide their homophobia after all!

            2. Hey, the sign didn’t say anything about toe-tapping.

            3. I thought that required a wide stance, no?

    4. No pissing while standing? WTF.

      1. Didn’t somewhere outlaw that recently? Scandinavia?

      2. Can you imagine all the drunk Russians just peeing everywhere? Those bathrooms will be a slip-and-slide 10 minutes in.

        1. Troughs are god’s solution to this. Although, if this is a “don’t piss in the shitter” sign, my high school coach would approve.

          1. Oh troughs…

    5. So, I guess picnicking is acceptable?

    1. A surprisingly dignified twerk.

    2. Is that all of the links? Aren’t you going to post the one about the Jaguar eating the Crocodile?

      Fine, I’ll do it:

      This is going up again in the PM Links to make sure everyone sees the awesomeness.

      1. I have one about beer making fun of Putin made by scruffy Scotsmen and one that involves me being slightly petty to make a point, but I want to be around when those are posted.

        That is a great video.

        1. If I ever move to Florida, I’m bringing a jaguar with me.

          1. Pythons can open doors. Just don’t move to Florida.

      2. Crikey!

      3. Outstanding video. Even apex predators are preyed upon every now & then.

  15. You guys don’t get it. Some drug mule with five tons of heroin in a secret compartment in his BMW driving 200mph will see your flashing headlamps and slow to the speed limit, thereby evading justice, AND CHILDREN WILL DIE.

    Fucking libertarians, always murdering the children.

    1. True libertarians work children to death in blood diamond mines.

  16. This is so sweet after those summer nights running the Ellisville cops down the bike trail only to disappear into my back yard. Except for that one day I missed the cut and met a thorn bush. Still escaped, with the cop threatening to break me in half. Good times.

  17. North Carolina officer indicted in shooting of mentally ill teen

    The shooting occurred on January 5 in Brunswick County in the eastern part of the state after the family of Keith Vidal, 18, called 911 seeking help with the teen, who they said had a screwdriver and was trying to fight his mother.

    Well, the cops stopped him from fighting his mother, didn’t they?

  18. Well yeah, how is that even a question?

  19. If I ever get stopped for flashing my lights to warn of a cop, I’ll just tell the cop, “Didn’t you see the bunnies crossing the road back there? I was just warning drivers.”

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