BLOG: Flashing your headlights protected by Constitution?

Tom Jackson
Jun 14, 2012

Earlier this week, as I drove west across Sandusky city limits along U.S. 6, the area where the speed limit suddenly drops to 35 mph, a truck in the opposite lane flashed its headlights.

Sure enough, a Sandusky Police Department car was parked alongside Cleveland Road, apparently watching for speeders.

Flashing your headlights may be a form of speech protected by the First Amendment.

That's what a judge in Florida says. He ruled that a Florida man who flashed his lights to warn about a sheriff deputy's speed trap was engaged in free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.

 

Comments

Second Opinion

Absolutly correct.!  

Its also legal to videotape TSA personel during their illegal molestation of your kids and family as well; oh, they will tell you its a 'secured' area but they are NOT police, only perverts thinking they actually do something of importance.

Factitious

This is only in the news because it's so stupid.

The Judge made perfect sense when he said the accused did not break a law against misuse of emergency flashers. He should have banged the gavel with a "not guilty" and quit while he was ahead.

While he was correct in observing that the accused was communicating with his flashlights, that's a red herring. Not all communication is protected speech. You can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater, for example.

In this case, the purpose and effect of the action was to subvert law enforcement, and so, even arguably obstruction of justice. But from the entire gamut of constitutional viewpoints, from strict constructionism to judicial activism, it's tough to defend this as free expression.

Judges at this level should be ensuring due process and ruling on whether the law was broken, not blazing constitutional trails.

 

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This is an example of police abusing their power. 

The law that the patrol officers allege that Kintner violated states: “Flashing lights are prohibited on vehicles except as a means of indicating a right or left turn, to change lanes, or to indicate that the vehicle is lawfully stopped or disabled upon the highway or except that the lamps . . . are permitted to flash.”   Fla. Stat. Ann. § 316.2397.  

Here, the patrol officers wrongfully and arbitrarily applied this law in an effort to get back at Kintner for interrupting a successful “speed trap.”   A look at the legislative intent is necessary in order to understand why this law does not apply.

The framers of § 316.2397 must have intended this law to prevent drivers from having flashing lights that distract other drivers on the road.   But sometimes distractions on the road are a good thing.   For instance, cars have flashing traffic signals in order to communicate to other drivers what they are doing.   Cars have built-in flashing lights to indicate to other drivers on the road things such as “I am turning left,” “I am breaking,” or “I am stopped” (hazards).   The framers of the aforementioned law knew that such flashing lights were important and thus indicated—as seen in the exceptions stated in the law—that flashing lights on cars that are used for communicating are okay. 

Kintner was in line with the intent of the law.   He was communicating to other drivers, not distracting them.   The officers knew that Kintner was doing this for communicative purposes—he told the officers why he was doing it.   Yet, the officers still tried to pin him with breaking this law.   Is it against the law to communicate to other drivers?  No.   The officers just wanted to get back at him—by using their power to ticket—for interrupting their revenue-raising scheme.   

Police need to understand that, although we as American citizens have the ability to interrupt their speed traps, they cannot use their power to allege an inapplicable law just to try to deter people from disturbing their having a successful money-sucking plan.   Speeding is dangerous and should be deterred; however, police do not have the power to shut people up from warning others about speed traps.   We are Americans, and we have a constitutional right under the First Amendment to speak.   As an American, Kintner’s First Amendment right was violated.   

 

Hmm

Factitious - "subvert" may be a little strong.  The purpose of flashing the lights is to warn people.  Standing in front of the radar dectecter so it couldn't clock anyone would be subverting law enforcment.  What if I went home and warned my husband - "hey when you drive down Cleveland road, there's a cop sitting there"?  Or what if I stood on the sidewalk down the road with a sign that read "Cop ahead"?  I think flashing your headlights is the same thing.  I agree with the free speech assessment.

Factitious

OK, Run, so when does warning a law breaker of an impending bust cross the line to obstruction of justice? Do think phoning your buddy's meth lab to tell them the DEA is on the way is protected free speech?

Hmm, I get where you're coming from, but he wasn't warning others of a washed out bridge or any danger other than that of getting a ticket. There is no other word with precisely the same meaning as subvert, and that's precisely what he did. I did say arguabley obstruction [of justice] -- it could be argued as well that this type of action is too trivial to criminalize, but that doesn't make it free speech.

 

run

 Factitious - 

ISSUE

To clarify, the issue is: when does the freedom of speech go too far that it becomes an obstruction to justice?    

How far can the freedom of speech go?    Is it going to far when it starts to prevent state actors from performing their jobs as pinning down crime-breakers?    

OPINION

There is no doubt that allowing drivers to warn other drivers about police ahead causes the justice system damage--people who were speeding are given a break from being caught in the act.   But, to say that drivers should not be able to flash their lights to warn other drivers about speed traps because it obstructs justice is to say that the "obstruction-of-justice" consideration should be weighed with greater consideration than our First Amendment right.   Our Constitutional rights are far more important in doing this balancing test.

Speed traps and meth busts are two differenent scenarios.   Meth busts are important because they deter people away from the low-life criminal habits that lead to the death and destruction of our country.   Speed traps, on the other hand, are used to deter a common act in America--speeding.   Everybody does it.   And the police know this.   It is a small civil infraction that is on almost everybody's record.   And, most notably, it is not as harmful as meth houses.   Are you really going to suggest that the protection of our freedom of speech is less important than making sure people are detered from speeding?   Speeding is dangerous, we all know that; but to suggest that the government should be able to have more power to deter a crime that is already punished by police officers  way too often is to suggest that the "speeding tickets system" (justice) is more important than our freedom of speech.   It is not.  

In weighing the importance of detering a common crime/civil infraction (speeding), which is a crime that people do even after they get a ticket (obviously tickets don't dissuade people from speeding), against the First Amendment Right, the First Amendment has greater weight.   

To side against our Constitutional rights and side with the "getting justice done no matter what" steps all over our rights as American citizens and allows the government--police officers, for example--to have way too much power.   The government must jump through the right hoops before they can have the power to ticket, seize, or search an American citizen.   Our Constitutional rights are these hoops.   If the government did not have to recognize our rights, they would have too much power.   

Weighing the First Amendment right against drug trafficking, on the otherhand, is totally separate analysis--one that we are not debating.    Let's stay focused on the issues at hand--weighing the importance of detering speeding against the freedom of speach.   Most Americans--and any reasonable person--would agree that the First Amendment is far more important than the "obstruction of justice" argument in support of speeding tickets that you are supporting.  

6079 Smith W

The oncoming motorist at which one is flashing one's headlights may or may not be speeding.

If the motorist is not exceeding the speed limit, how exactly is that obstruction of justice?

And, if the motorist is speeding and slows down, how is that obstruction of justice?

Is the intent of the speed trap to get motorists to comply with the law or to catch speeders?
 

 

 

Hmm

I agree Smith.  This is nothing like warning your meth lab friend about an upcoming bust.  Cops are in plain view - its not a secret mission.  But I do dislike the term "speed trap" - as if cops are doing something sneaky to entice drivers to speed.  Cops sit in wait to get motorists to comply, and to catch them, and yes, to get money.  I have no problem with that, and I've recieved my fair share of speeding tickets.  I guess its a speed trap when its an area with a speed limit that doesn't seem to fit.  But just a cop sitting in wait is not a trap.

6079 Smith W

@ Hmm:

Yes my favorite ticket which is still on my license is the one I got in Bellevue.

I saw the 55 MPH sign and began speeding up. The cop stopped me.

I said, "Yea, it says 55. "

He said, "That means on or after the sign."

That my friend is a @#$% "speed trap."

I avoid Bellevue whenever possible and will never buy sh*t in that town.

I guess they need the money, but that's the last they'll ever get from me.

I had IL plates at the time. I wonder if that had something to do with it? Duh.

Oh yea. And 25 MPH through downtown Monroeville is obviously for safety reasons - BS.

 

Jane Goodall

i wont spend a penny in berlin heights or milan... try to avoid hurons berm nazis also

Marcus M

Hypothetically, an officer observes a vehicle with flashing headlights, he stops the vehicle to check if the driver needs assistance or has a vehicle defect.  At this point a vehicle safety check, license status check, registration, and insurance status, could take 5-10 minutes, no citation issued,  no mention of "warning of other drivers" just checking for driver welfare and vehicle safety.  Might not be  a good idea if you; don't have a valid drivers license, been drinking, have drugs in your vehicle or driving a junker....

 

FYI, the judge who made this ruling is a "district judge" comparable to a municipal judge in Ohio, his ruling only applies to his court jurisdiction.

Hmm

I still don't get the 'trap' part.  When do YOU think the speed limit changes?  Its at or after the sign.  Seems pretty clear you were speeding.

6079 Smith W

 @ Hmm:

So you only ever accelerate to the listed MPH on or after the sign?

I was heading east and was almost out of town. There's the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law.

So you don't believe that little towns purposely put in extremely low MPH speed limits on main thoroughfares in order to "trap" out of town motorists?

And little money hungry towns don't give their cops quotas for speeding tickets? LOL.

Well regardless of your opinion, Bellevue has seen the last @#$% dime from me.

 

The Big Dog's back

 Obey the law winnie and you wouldn't have to worry about tickets. I know, I know, the laws were meant for the rest of us, not you.

Captain Gutz

6079,

"I was heading east and was almost out of town. There's the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law."

No, the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law is about $65.00, at least in Milan.

Almost out of town, Almost pregnant, Almost  lucky, Almost Not Guilty.

Donegan

The "spirit" of the law is to get you to pay money. Plain and simple. Flashing your lights is a right to warn against speeding. If it is against the law i am sueing the state of ohio for warning me to wear a seatbelt with there comercials. Who do they think they are we are in a Fascist state?

Jane Goodall

Flashing one's lights has the same result as a weasly cop out to write an over priced ticket... works for me

Unassumer

Run:  Good essay; excellent points-except we have already lost many of our freedoms and the power of Government continues to grow.  Freedom is Speech is limited at best but could end up being a crime at some point. It started with the Patriot Act and may end with us all being screened, divided and housed elsewhere.  We may even have to work where they tell us to in the future.  You will not be allowed to own a home.  You will be given living quarters where you will remain except for when you work.  You will not be travelling without permission.  You will not eat unhealthy foods, smoke, drink or otherwise harm your body because then you would not be able to perform your work to capacity.  Think it won't happen?  Think again.

Hmm

Actually, no I don't.  And when I do, I know I'm pushing the envelope.  I'm a person that believes there are lines...when you cross them you usually know you crossed them, and you shouldn't complain when you get called out.  I've got teenagers, I hear it all.  When you agree with your teenager that line can be blurry, they usually make you regret it!  If one of them came home and said, "but I could see the sign, why did I get busted?" I'd have little sympathy.

OMG.LOL.WT_

Who would have thought, a bunch of Philadelphia lawyers on here.

I'm curious about the flashing light that warns we are "breaking".  Would that be the speed limit?

Or did run mean brakeing?

Marcus M

When I realy want to mess with people I flash my lights when there are no police officers.....

 

My pet peeve people driving in the left (passing lane) going below the speed limit....

kURTje

Smith use your brain.              The officer is right.                 After the sign you increase your speed.      Not before.            You deserved what you got, some might be the attitude you gave to the cop also.