Let there be light, a federal judge ruled.
A trial judge in St. Louis this week held that drivers have a First Amendment right to flash their headlights to warn oncoming vehicles about speed traps ahead.
The case involved a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri on behalf of a driver who was pulled over and ticketed in the City of Ellisville for flashing his lights after passing a radar trap.
The driver, Michael Elli, was accused of “[f]lashing lights on certain vehicles . . . warning of RADAR ahead,” according to court papers. He faced a fine up to $1,000 as well as points on his license.
After Mr. Elli pleaded not guilty to the moving violation, the city dropped the charge. But he filed suit anyway, accusing the city of violating his constitutional rights.
The city’s police department told the court that it had already stopped going after headlight-flashing drivers, but U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey didn’t think that was a good enough assurance. On Monday, he ordered the city to stop punishing drivers for flickering their high beams.
“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 city’s decision to change its policy, the judge wrote, granting a preliminary injunction.
Reached for comment, Ellisville police referred Law Blog to a city attorney who wasn’t immediately available. A lawyer for the city told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the ruling wouldn’t have any practical effect on police operations “because for the past nine months we haven’t been enforcing this ordinance in this way anyway.”
Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU’s Missouri chapter, hailed the ruling as a civil rights victory for motorists.
“When someone is communicating in a public street, [he is] expressing [himself] in a way that’s protected by the First Amendment,” Mr. Rothert told Law Blog. “Unless there is a strong reason why the government should be allowed to censor that speech, the police shouldn’t be stopping or prosecuting people because of the content of their speech.”
At an earlier hearing, a lawyer for the city suggested that flashing headlamps might illegally interfere with a police investigation, according to court papers.
Mr. Rothert said he wasn’t sure how many other jurisdictions crack down on so-calledspeed trap Paul Reveres. But he said that after local press first reported on Mr. Elli’s predicament, dozens of people from around the country contacted his office with stories about how they were pulled over for warning fellow drivers.