Flashing Headlights To Warn of Speed Traps Permanently Protected in Missouri Town


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It's the happy conclusion to a free speech battle with potentially broad application: A federal judge says flashing your headlights to warn oncoming drivers of speed traps is protected by the First Amendment. Under a permanent injunction issued in the case, the town of Ellisville, Missouri, will have to stop hassling drivers considerate enough to give fellow motorists a friendly heads-up.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, which represented Michael Elli, describes the facts of the dispute:

While driving along Kiefer Creek Road [in November 2012], Michael Elli, flashed his headlights to warn oncoming traffic to proceed with caution. He was pulled over by a City of Ellisville police officer and issued a citation for flashing lights to warn of radar ahead. When Elli appeared in municipal court, he was told the standard punishment is a $1,000 fine. The charge against Elli was eventually dismissed.

A pro-speech outcome seemed certain early on. When issuing a preliminary injunction against Ellisville, U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Autrey pointed out 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 advice that lights should be flashed to signal emergencies.

Autrey also noted that using headlights to communicate makes the act speech, which is protected on First Amendment grounds. He also dismissed officials' promises that they would behave better in the future if only they were allowed to keep the ordinance on the books.

With the deck stacked against, city officials folded. They entered a joint agreement with Elli to make the preliminary injunction permanent. Autrey obliged them [pdf]:

It is now the order and judgment of this Court that the preliminary injunction entered on February 23, 2014, be made permanent. Defendant City of Ellisville and its police officers are permanently enjoined from detaining, seizing, citing, or prosecuting any individual within the City of Ellisville for communicating by flashing his or her automobile headlamps.

Chalk one up for free speech in Missouri.

Flashing headlights to warn other motorists of speed traps remains subject to a hodgepodge of laws across the United States—protected in some places, forbidden in others, and punished by cops under creative interpretations of local rules in many jurisdictions.

It's also good manners.

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  1. Given how often shootings happen, headlight flashers might also be saving a motorist’s life.

    1. At the risk of their own. I actually used to hunt with a retired Texas state trooper (he coached my twin brother’s baseball team), and he was telling us a funny story about how he pulled somebody over for flashing their lights one time and threatened to give them a ticket for failure to maintain their vehicle, since the lights were obviously shorting out. My dad, an avid speeder who taught my brother and me the etiquette of flashing lights (IOW, do it because you’d want somebody to warn you), didn’t laugh. One of very few times my neocon Republican father has ever mentioned the words “abuse of authority.”

  2. “It’s also good manners.”
    It is always proper etiquette to assume that citizens approaching you on the road are violating the speeding laws since everyone exceedes the posted limit.

    1. Driving has been part of my jobs for so many years, I don’t speed. I stay to the right so traffic to the left can go their own way. I still occasionally have someone decide to follow me into a parking lot and complain to me that I’m only going the speed limit. I tell them I agree it’s too slow, and please do the honest thing and get the limits changed. The strange looks I get…

      1. You just can’t win. If you speed less than 10 over, you are probably fine, but you could get stopped at any time if some cop feels like it. And if you are careful to keep to the speed limit, that’s suspicious and suggests you are trying to avoid cops for some nefarious purpose.

        Here’s my question: do they think that people who aren’t smuggling drugs or whatever enjoy getting stopped by cops? Every rational person tries to avoid getting stopped by the police.

  3. This just means they’ll give the people tickets for failure to dim their high beams when there is oncoming traffic. Or obstructing a police investigation. They’ll come up with something.

  4. Assuming that speed traps have anything to do with safety (which is probably not a good assumption, but that’s what they are supposed to pretend is the reason), shouldn’t they encourage headlight flashing as it encourages people to slow down?

    But of course they don’t like it because it messes with a nice revenue stream.

    1. The solution is for the fines to either go in the state money hole or to a “victim of uninsured motorists” fund. Anything but right into the pockets of local government crooks.

      1. I rarely see anyone other than troopers doing speed traps in my state. The obvious reason is that all the revenue goes to the secretary of state.

        1. Hmm. That’s a good point. How about a fund to help victims of police brutality afford legal costs?

          1. There isn’t much of that reported around here. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but you don’t hear about it.

    2. shouldn’t they encourage headlight flashing as it encourages people to slow down?

      No, because that undermines police authority. They are supposed to slow down because the police gave them a ticket, not because some citizen warned them.

  5. Defendant City of Ellisville and its police officers are permanently enjoined from detaining, seizing, citing, or prosecuting any individual within the City of Ellisville for communicating by flashing his or her automobile headlamps.

    That’s fine. The city and its officers will simply transition to detaining, seizing, citing, or prosecuting people for acting suspiciously and giving probable cause after flashing automobile headlamps. Good stop, HTH.

  6. Of course, cops in any other jurisdiction are free to harass drivers for doing the same thing because they know that, although it’s illegal, there is no penalty to the officer for doing so and rare is the victim who will fight the case in court.

    All just part of the government philosophy of, “Because we can” also known by it’s alternative title of “STFD & STFU”.

  7. Serious question: Will there be any penalties for the cops if they defy the judge?

    Because if not, then what does it matter what a judge says?

  8. They could probably be held in contempt if the judge ever finds out cops are ignoring the order. The ruling just means that cops need to use a different excuse to harass people.

    From now on, when they pull someone over for flashing their lights, they will have to say something like, “You seemed to be driving erratically. Can I search your car or do I have to call for a canine?”

  9. “You seemed to be driving erratically. Can I search your car or do I have to call for a canine?”

    [Pulls out phone, starts recording.]

    “Officer, I am recording this conversation in order to preserve potential evidence. You have asserted that I was driving erratically. Could you provide specifics? Could you also explain your reasoning for why my driving gave you a reasonable suspicion that a crime was in progress? Remember, the judge will be hearing this conversation verbatim. Thank you for your cooperation.”

  10. I guess it’s just the bossy in me, but if I see someone driving like an absolute moron (cutting people off, not stopping for pedestrians, etc.) I’ll flash my lights at them even if I don’t see a speed trap, because I know it’s a pretty sure bet they’ll shape up, at least for a little while. I’m sure I’ll get busted for that one of these days. I’m guessing they can get a lot more money if someone gets mowed down, as opposed to just speeding or reckless driving without any injuries or fatalities.

  11. I was pulled over in Missouri a few months ago(KCMO resident) for this very reason. When the young cop who approached my car told me this was why he pulled me over, I asked the most powerful question avaliable to Libertarians. “Who was the victim for my transgression?”. He gave me a sideways look, paused for a minute, and said “Nobody, I guess”. I drove away, ticket free.

  12. Great… Tell me, did the people previously fined get their money back (plus interest)? Did the city have to cover the winner’s legal bills?

    Didn’t think so…

  13. obstructing a police investigation.

  14. Much as I dislike the police, I still stand by my opinion that enforcing speed limits is one of the few legitimate things LEO’s do, considering that traffic accidents are a major cause of death, and considering that excessive speed is a major cause of traffic accidents. Now, granted, I usually go about ten over, but that’s mostly just so that I am keeping up with everyone else, as driving slower that the rest of traffic is as dangerous as speeding. But, no one has a right to endanger my life by blazing down the road well over the posted limit, as if the law is for everyone else, but not their special little selves.

    Which is a completely different thing than the right of free speech, I realize.

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