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Flashing your headlights to warn fellow drivers of police "speed traps" may not be verbal — but it is protected speech under the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled this week.
U.S. District Judge Henry E. Autrey in St. Louis on Monday prohibited the St. Louis County town of Ellisville from ticketing drivers who practice the common courtesy of using their headlights to alert others to speed traps.
The controversy was sparked by Ellisville resident Michael Elli, who was pulled over for flashing his headlights in November, 2012 and was told he could face a fine of up to $1,000 if convicted.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sued on Elli's behalf and while the criminal case was dropped, the civil lawsuit persisted.
Ellisville officials argued that flashing headlights could hinder a police investigation.
But Jonathan Turley, a criminal attorney and a professor at George Washington University Law School, said "There's no difference between a verbal warning and a mechanical warning. Both are forms of speech."
Autrey agreed and even said that drivers flashing their headlights is beneficial because the act sends "a message to bring one's driving in conformity with the law — whether it be by slowing down, turning on one's own headlamps at dusk or in the rain, or proceeding with caution."
Jeffrey A. Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, said that his office has heard from drivers all over the state of Missouri who had stories similar to Elli's.
Those cited for headlight-flashing in other states have all walked — or driven — away without charges, Turley said.
"It is important that law enforcement officers in other jurisdictions take note of this federal court decision and the ACLU-MO's commitment to free speech," Mittman said in a statement.