Civil Liberties

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.