Is there a constitutionally protected right to flash your lights at oncoming traffic, in order to warn them of an approaching speed trap? There’s remarkably few rulings out there on this issue, and a quick search reveals very little guidance from the judiciary and the legal community. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a common occurrence. I hear about it from time-to-time and there’s a few instances out there if it being captured on video. Perhaps my favorite is an old video from the guy they called the Godfather of First Amendment auditors, Jeff Grey.
This occurred in Florida, near Jacksonville, on I-10, and involves a classic Florida speed trap, full of unnecessary government employees who have nothing else better to do than to harass people and flex their egos and authority. Jeff sets the trap with the bait. And the cops can’t resist it.
Here’s the original video:
What we have here is an acknowledgment that Jeff was subjected to a traffic stop as a sole result of his flashing his lights. There’s no allegation of speeding, seat belt, or other pretext for the stop. Remember: every traffic stop is already an investigative detention, by definition, and therefore reasonable suspicion must be present to justify the invasion of Fourth Amendment protections. Now, reasonable suspicion is usually pretty easy for even the dumbest of police officers to articulate, which encourages them to lie. They just have to say they saw you violate some traffic law. Here, had they known ahead of time who they were dealing with, they probably would have made something else up. But the first thing that popped out was feigned concern about protecting or helping Jeff. They know that’s a lie. Jeff knows that’s a lie. They know that Jeff knows that’s a lie.
If this were true, there would be no Fourth Amendment justification to continue to detain Jeff. However, the footage clearly shows that they indeed continue to detain him. What likely happens is that the officers now go back to their police cruisers, and discuss the situation. Now they’re aware that Jeff was filming them. For police officers who were already willing to lie about the reason they pulled Jeff over, this could be a problem. As you’ll see, their strategy is to stop the recording. But Jeff refuses, calling their bluff.
Even now in 2022, there’s still no clear federal law on the issue on whether there’s a federally protected First Amended right to warn oncoming traffic about a speed trap. But there’s a wealth of clearly established law on the right not to be detained by the police in the absence of reasonable suspicion. If the officers in Jeff’s video had been honest about the reason they were pulling Jeff over, and if they were able to point to a Florida statute he was violating, they may have been justified in their actions, or at the very least entitled to qualified immunity. However, they basically admitted that they pulled him over in retaliation for warning other motorists, without bothering even to lie about a pretextual reason for doing so, thereafter repeatedly trying to intimidate him into turning off his camera.
There are no Supreme Court cases on this. There are no federal appellate cases, to my knowledge. There are only a couple of U.S. District Court opinions, and a couple of state circuit court opinions. There was a 2019 memorandum opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin holding that a policy and practice of stopping, detaining, and citing drivers who flash their headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed trap violates his right to free speech under the First Amendment. This was Obriecht v. Splinter.
The First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” It protects conduct, symbols, and non-verbal communication that express or convey a particularized message reasonably understood by viewers. Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 404-06 (1989). Flashing headlights could easily be placed into the category of expressive conduct. In the Obriecht v. Splinter case, this point was conceded by the state. However, even expressive conduct may be regulate by the government. For example, speech that incites or produces “imminent lawless action,” Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969), or is integral to criminal conduct, such as fighting words, threats, and solicitations, United States v. White, 610 F.3d 956, 960 (7th Cir. 2010), is not protected by the First Amendment.
Another similar case from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri held in 2014 that this conduct was entitled to protection under the First Amendment. (Elli v. City of Ellisville, Mo). At least two state circuit courts have found that drivers have a constitutional right to flash their headlights. (State of Oregon v. Hill (2014); State v. Walker (Tenn. 2003)).
The problem with the lack of precedent on this issue leads to a big problem for potential plaintiffs: qualified immunity. The standard for qualified immunity requires establishing that the police officer violated clearly established law. Where there is almost no established case law, that’s going to be a tough task.
However, as we saw from Jeff’s video, if police are going to pull people over for flashing their lights at other motorists, they need to be honest about what they’re doing, and identify a state or local statute they allege is violated by the relevant conduct. Then, the victim of that stop can mount a First Amendment challenge. This is how the law will become clearly established. At the same time, if they’re not being honest, only video footage is going to protect the motorist from pre-textual lies, which if documented, will establish liability for a Fourth Amendment violation, with no good argument for qualified immunity.