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Federal court says flashing headlights is free speech

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A federal judge has ruled flashing your headlights – the universal symbol for “police running radar ahead” – is protected as free speech.

Ellisville, Missouri Police cited Michael Elli for flashing his headlights at oncoming vehicles November 17,  2012.  Court documents say a judge later told Elli the standard fine for that violation was $1,000.

Elli was accused of violating an Ellisville city ordinance restricting the use of flashing lights on vehicles.  The ticket was for a moving violation, which would have assessed points against his license if Elli was found guilty.  Before getting that ticket, Elli had not gotten a traffic ticket in more than 35 years.

Elli pleaded not guilty and the city later dropped its case and the citation against him.

He filed a lawsuit in federal court, saying he’s not the only one to get such a ticket in Ellisville and that the policy violates the right to free speech protected under the First Amendment.

The federal court did not accept the city’s suggestion that drivers who flashed headlights, to warn others of a speed trap, would be illegally interfering with a police investigation.  The ruling said the state, which issues driver’s licenses, actually recommends drivers flash their headlamps to warn other drivers of emergencies.

The ruling says a policy or custom of ticketing a driver for communicating with oncoming traffic by flashing headlamps is an act of retaliation for the message being delivered to other drivers.

The court’s preliminary injunction, issued Monday, February 3, 2014, prohibits Ellisville police from “seizing, citing or prosecuting any individual within the City of Ellisville for communicating by flashing his or her headlamps.”

According to the ruling, Ellisville Police have stopped issuing tickets to drivers who flash their headlights.

Elli vs Ellisville ruling

Preliminary injunction against City of Ellisville Missouri