***Update: Flashing headlights has been an ongoing legal issue for some time now, however, this month, the Federal court stepped in with an authoritative ruling. U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey issued a preliminary injunction stopping Ellisville (a town in St. Louis County) from ticketing drivers who flash their headlights in order to warn other drivers of impending speed traps. Judge Autrey determined that flashing one’s headlights is “protected speech” and therefore cannot be prosecuted.
Even though the injunction merely applies to Ellisville, because it was handed down by a Federal court, it is likely to shape the opinion of several other jurisdictions far beyond St. Louis County. Granted, this decision (or a decision like it in another jurisdiction) could be overturned, but for now, it looks like you are likely safe to use your headlights to warn other drivers.***
We have all been there. Even the most conscientious safe driver among us has had that moment when the weather, the radio and a good feeling have conspired to make your foot press down on the gas pedal a little harder than you usually would. Then, all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, you pass patrol cars tucked away behind an overpass, thicket of trees or some other perfect hideaway. Before the ominous flare of lights even flash, you know it is over. You know you have been caught in a speed trap.
Ever since the dawn of the speed trap, drivers have sought ways to avoid them. Well, they sought ways to avoid them, other than driving the speed limit of course. The Knights of the Road a.k.a. “truckers” would routinely fire up their CB radios to shout out to anyone who was listening that “bears were on the prowl near so-and-so exit.” Dedicated DJs would take calls from drivers listening on the radio and dutifully report the speed traps to their audience . And, as you can see in the picture on your right, some brazen business owners have even used their store front billboards to announce police presence. However, perhaps the most common of the speed trap indicators is the time honored tradition of flashing headlights. Turns out, this simple Good Samaritan gesture has developed into a judicial battle over whether this act should be considered obstruction of justice or freedom of speech.
To the average person, the thought of warning a fellow motorist hardly falls under the purview of what we believe “obstruction of justice” to mean. No one is lying to police about the whereabouts of a known criminal, no one is hiding evidence in an important criminal case, and it could easily be construed, that the person flashing the headlights is getting the other drivers to stop speeding before the police do. In other words, flashing headlights gets people to drive at a safer speed earlier than they would if they continued driving as they were up to the speed trap. However, even with that justification, police are missing out on writing tickets they feel necessary to prevent further traffic offenses. Furthermore, for the longest time, Florida law prohibited flashing lights at other cars for any reason whatsoever, thus obstruction of justice or not, someone doing so could be issued a ticket.
Up until 2011, countless Florida drivers were issued tickets of this nature. Granted, some drivers fought the tickets, but most did not. Many drivers just paid the fine. Had these drivers fought, like Erich Campbell did, they would have learned that most Florida courts were sympathetic to the drivers in these types of cases. Courts all over the state sided with motorists that flashing headlights is a protected form of free speech, and therefore, people issued these tickets would not have to pay them. Furthermore, earlier this year, Fla. Statute 316.2397(7) was amended to allow flashing headlights. Thus, motorists now had the protection of both the courts and the legislature to continue this practice.
Although motorists are now safe from being ticketed over this act, there is no provision to recover the money for all those who already paid the fine. Campbell brought forth a class action lawsuit on behalf of himself and others who had been fined, but to no avail. While the courts were happy to rule that flashing headlights was a protected form of speech, they did not allow the class action lawsuit. The court justified its ruling on the basis that the state government had rewritten its policy and had trained officers not to write such tickets in the future.
With all this being said, as an attorney who has seen just how devastating the consequences of speeding can be, I want to encourage everyone to observe the speed limit as best you can. However, if you find yourself in one of those lead foot moods, remember to look for flashing headlights. Someone is looking out for you (and it is legal).
As always, if you or anyone you know has been in a car accident or is need of legal advice, you can call us toll free: (877) 941-4878.