Flashing Headlights as Speed-Trap Warning Is Free Speech: Judge

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. on February 06, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Drivers have a First Amendment right to flash their headlights to warn others about an upcoming speed trap, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey this week granted a preliminary injunction that bars the city of Ellisville, Missouri, from enforcing its ordinance against flashing headlights as a speed trap warning, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Autrey ruled that even though the city claims to have stopped targeting headlight-flashing drivers, a preliminary injunction was needed to make sure the ticketing stops too.

Spotlight on Headlight 'Speech'

The American Civil Liberties Union 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. Though the charges against the driver were dropped, he filed a lawsuit against the city and accused it of violating his First Amendment rights, according to the WSJ.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the government can't censor your freedom of speech without proper justifications. At issue in this case is whether flashing your headlights is protected speech, and if it is, does the government have a strong reason for ticketing people who do it?

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri found that drivers' use of headlights to communicate with other drivers to warn them about a speed trap is indeed protected speech, the WSJ reports.

The judge further opined that even though the city stopped ticketing people for the behavior, the ordinance remains on the books, so the city could still potentially try to punish people for flashing their headlights as a warning signal. In an effort to block the city's power to issue the tickets under the ordinance, the judge granted the ACLU's request for a preliminary injunction.

Injunction Is Not Yet Permanent

A preliminary injunction is a legal order that prevents someone from continuing with their actions for the time being.

In order for a judge to grant such an injunction, the party seeking to stop the behavior must show that there's a good chance they'll win the case if it goes to trial. It must also be shown that there's a strong possibility the complaining party will suffer irreparable harm if the temporary order isn't in place.

Although a preliminary injunction was granted in the flashing headlights case, the City of Ellisville can still appeal the decision. The city's lawyers could also just wait until trial to argue why the temporary injunction shouldn't be made permanent.

According to the ACLU, this is the first federal court ruling on the issue of flashing headlights, so it'll be interesting to see how other jurisdictions treat these types of cases down the road.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard