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The Case of the Blinking Headlights

Posted on by Townsend Myers
Photo by Quinet via Flickr

Is it legal to blink your headlights to warn oncoming motorists of a speed trap? Courts are sorting out the issue. Photo by Quinet via Flickr

Erich Campbell flashed his headlights to warn an oncoming motorist of a speed trap and ignited a constitutional storm.  He is now at the center of a legal debate to have flashing headlights recognized as protected speech.

Campbell was ticketed by the Florida Highway Patrol for improperly flashing his lights to warn other motorists of a speed trap. Campbell had no idea this was illegal, he just knew it was a common signal for warning oncoming traffic of trouble ahead. Campbell landed in the middle of the psychedelic grey area of the law where warning speeders to slow down becomes a case of obstruction of justice. It would lead him to file a class action suit that would open a debate spanning issues from First Amendment rights to criminal intent.

A recent USA TODAY editorial outlines Campbell’s story. Law enforcement officers took issue with Campbell’s behavior (flashing his lights) arguing that it aided and abetted speeders by warning them of a potential speed trap. Yet the editorial gives examples of how law enforcement officers themselves often use warnings of impending checkpoints in the name of deterrence.  “Authorities advance one major argument for making blinking illegal,” says USA TODAY, “that it warns speeders, who are committing a crime and allows them to get away with it…..Many jurisdictions, in fact, use advance warning of patrols and radar stops for deterrence, with the full blessing of police.”

Police in New Orleans announce DWI checkpoints well in advance. The checkpoints are generally published in the paper, and then tweeted, posted on Facebook, etc. by people like me and others.

The USA TODAY story points out that even though several appellate courts have determined flashing headlights to be protected speech, the Supreme Court has yet to decide the question. There’s no guarantee the High Court will hear Campbell’s case but if you read the comment section of the article I think you’ll find the issue decided — at least in the court of public opinion.



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