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Fresno Drivers: Is Flashing Headlights to Warn Others Protected Speech?

Posted by Terry A. Wapner | Mar 26, 2014 | 0 Comments

You have most likely seen it happen. Maybe it was you who did it. But, could this act lead to a traffic citation or even worse? I am referring to the act of one Fresno driver flashing his vehicle's headlights in order to alert other drivers that there is a police vehicle up ahead. Recently, a federal judge in Missouri has ruled in favor of drivers.

At the core of the issue is whether flashing headlights is considered to be a form of protected speech, one that is protected by the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) recently sued the town of Ellisville, MO for making it illegal for drivers to “warn” others about an upcoming speed trap or other form of police presence. Since the federal judge's ruling that this law is improper and a violation of the Constitution, ACLU Legal Director Tony Rothert has applauded the judge's finding and hopes that it will “serve as a warning to other cities who try to do the same.”

This is in an important ruling because it was the first federal court to decide this issue anywhere in the country. This means that not only cities in Missouri will think twice about passing a law like this, but others throughout the country will as well. When asked if it would defend others throughout the country who may eventually be cited for a similar offense, the ACLU responded by saying that “if we hear about it happening after today, we will contact them, and ask them to stop.”

It also sends a message in a broader sense. Not only can a state not restrict drivers from flashing headlights, but this means that the concept of protected speech will not be confined to limited situations. Take for instance, a recent Pittsburgh, PA case involving a driver being issued a citation for making an offensive gesture towards an officer. Not only did the ACLU get the citation dismissed because it is considered a form of protected speech, but it cost the city $50,000.

Many times, when cases end this way - officers involved will be required to be retrained in order to prevent similar situations from occurring. However, in the Ellisville case, the city's police chief had immediately begun ordering officers to stop ticketing drivers for flashing their lights right after the suit was originally filed. In addition, the city furthered the prohibition by implementing a ban for any type of detention or arrest of drivers who flash their headlights.

Basically, this means that the judge's ruling will have no real practical effect on police procedure because they had already quit the practice, but it is still considered a win by many in Missouri and countless others throughout the country.

But what about here, in Fresno? Keep in mind that even though the federal judge in Missouri made this ruling, it does not mean that the practice is now illegal everywhere automatically. However, it has set a precedent that other defense attorneys and those who care about the 1st Amendment can refer to when an individual's right to speech has been or is threatened to be restricted.

About the Author

Terry A. Wapner

Terry A. Wapner confines his practice to the defense of persons accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and related crimes.

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