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Flashing Headlights to Warn Others: A First Amendment Right

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Flashing Headlights and a Modern Day Paul Revere

Is it against the law to flash your headlights to warn fellow drivers of a speed trap set up by the police?  That’s the million dollar question at the center of a battle between Missouri resident Michael Eli and the police.  The police claimed that it was an obstruction of justice for Mr. Eli to act like a modern day Paul Revere to warn other drivers, but was it?

Free Speech and Obstruction of Justice: a Murky Situation

The line between free speech rights entailed by the First Amendment and the obstruction of justice is a difficult one to draw. This issue has occurred in several states including Florida, Utah and Tennessee, where police officers have objected to drivers warning others of speed traps.  However, courts in all these states have erred on the side of the drivers and maintained that it’s protected speech and that headlight flashers cannot be prosecuted.  However, when motorists that have been charged with obstruction of justice and later had the charges dropped have tried to sue for wrongful prosecution, they have been far less successful.

Laws Changed Before Any Lawsuits Could Be Won

One man and his son filed a class action lawsuit in Florida on behalf of all drivers who received a ticket for flashing their headlights to warn other drivers of police speed traps.  However, they lost their suit because Florida had already changed their laws in the interim to teach new police officers not to write tickets for flashing headlights.  So, while it’s not a big surprise that the charges were dropped against Mr. Eli in Missouri, it would be a far bigger feat for him to win a lawsuit for violating his First Amendment rights.

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    […] Flashing Headlights to Warn Others: A First Amendment Right Posted 07/17/13 by David_Mittleman and filed under: Blog […]

  2. Adam Kielich says:
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    If the traffic code is intended to result in safe driving then it seems like having more drivers drive cautiously because they think an officer is approaching would have a much greater effect on safety than an officer hiding behind a tree working a speed trap.