Erich Campbell of Florida wanted to help other drivers avoid a pricey speeding ticket and license points, but instead found himself pulled over, handcuffed, and given a $101 ticket.
He flashed his headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a nearby speed trap.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. In December 2009, a patrolman was set up on the southbound side of Route 589 near the Tampa International Airport. During the stop, which was recorded by the patrolman’s vehicle dash camera, he told Campbell that flashing his headlights was illegal and gave him a ticket that read “improper flashing of high-beams.”
Campbell didn’t know it was illegal then, and doesn’t think it should be today. In fact, some analysts say that flashing high beams isn’t illegal under current Florida law, but cops have been writing tickets anyway.
Campbell eventually got the ticket dismissed, but he recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over writing similar citations. Campbell estimates that about 2500 drivers were penalized with similar tickets. Most simply chose to pay their fines, but Campbell took the fight to court on principle.
This has sparked an ongoing debate over the limits of free speech and law enforcement.
For police and others who believe flashing high beams should be illegal, there are two main justifications. One, flipping on your brights distracts other drivers and could be dangerous (though less of a problem during daylight hours).
The other argument cited has to do with obstructing police in the course of their official duties. According to this line of argument, spoiling a speed trap is something akin to warning a burglar that the cops are coming.
Campbell, for one, isn’t buying either of those explanations. He says it comes down to the First Amendment’s Constitutional guarantee of the right to free speech.
Here is a video overview of Campbell’s case, courtesy of Fox News:
It would seem there is a content restriction involved in a flashing signal ban, and typically the First Amendment errs against content-based restrictions. Flashing headlights can be used to warn other drivers of dangerous road conditions, an accident ahead, or even to have other drivers turn their own headlights on.
Florida has no law in place that makes flashing headlights illegal. But police have used a law intended to ban after-market lights in order write the high-beam switching summonses.
Many states have already had the courts decide the legality of headlight flashing in years past. New Jersey ruled in 1999 that headlight flashing was not illegal and it was improper for motorists to be stopped under that pretext. A similar judgement was reached in New York state in 1994.
A Florida judge will review Campbell’s case over the next few months.
Blaze readers, where do you stand on this?