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Flashing Headlights to Warn Drivers Is Free Speech: Dist. Court

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Drivers have a First Amendment right to flash their headlights to warn others about an upcoming speed trap, U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey has ruled.

Autrey made waves in Missouri last week after he granted a preliminary injunction that bars the city of Ellisville from enforcing its ordinance against flashing headlights at a speed trap warning.

Given the novelty of the issue, it's possible that the Eighth Circuit will eventually hear an appeal of the case.

Protecting 'Speed Trap Paul Reveres'

The ACLU of Missouri sued the City of Ellisville on behalf of a driver who was pulled over and ticketed for flashing his headlights at upcoming vehicles in an effort to warn them about a speed trap. He faced a fine up to $1,000 as well as points on his license, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Though the city has stopped going after headlight-flashing drivers and the charges against the driver were dropped, he filed a lawsuit against the city and accused it of violating his First Amendment rights.

The city's initial argument that flashing headlights might be illegal interference with a police investigation fell flat. Under Mo. Rev. Stat. § 575.030, the crime of hindering prosecution "does not apply to a warning given in connection with an effort to bring another into compliance with the law." Accordingly, Autrey ruled the driver's expressive conduct -- that of Paul Revere-esque headlight flashing -- was protected speech.

Although the city stopped ticketing people for warning drivers of speed traps, it's still on the books. Autrey granted the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction to curb the chilling effect the ordinance could have on drivers' free speech rights. That means no more pulling over, detaining, or handing out citations to drivers perceived as flashing headlights to warn others.

A First in Federal Court

According to the ACLU, this is the first federal court ruling on the issue of flashing headlights. On the state level, Amy Feldman of the Constitution Daily writes that state courts in Florida, Utah, and Tennessee have all ruled that flashing headlights are protected speech, and that a headlight flasher can't be prosecuted for obstructing justice for flashing headlights to alert oncoming traffic of a speed trap.

However, Feldman notes that headlight flashers' civil claims against the police for violating their First Amendment rights have been far less successful.

Judge Autrey's ruling is only a preliminary injunction; a hearing on a permanent injunction is pending. If the Eighth Circuit entertains an eventual appeal by the City of Ellisville, it'll be interesting to see how the court rules on the novel matter. In the meantime, let there be light.

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