Florida Judge Says Flashing Headlights Is Free Speech: Discuss

May 24, 2012
Police car with headlights on

Police car with headlights on

When someone flashes his headlights at you, it usually means one of two things: (a) you forgot to turn on your own headlights, or (b) there's a speed trap around the next curve.

There's no arguing that the first of those warnings is important for safety reasons. Driving at dusk without headlights and taillights illuminated makes cars harder to see and easier to hit -- or easier for pedestrians to step in front of.

But what about the second? Is it acceptable to tattle on a policeman lying in wait for speeders and their delicious revenue? Law enforcement officials in Seminole County, Florida don't think so, but according to the Orlando Sentinel, a judge begs to differ.

How it all went down

On August 10 of last year, Lake Mary resident Ryan Kintner saw a sheriff's deputy park near his home and whip out a radar gun, presumably hoping to catch speeders and generate fines for the county coffers. Kintner wanted to alert passersby to the situation, so he hopped in his car, drove a few blocks away, and began flashing his lights at oncoming traffic in hopes of getting drivers to slow down.

The deputy saw what Kintner was up to and issued two tickets: one for running a stop sign, and another for flashing his headlights. The officer's rationale for ticket #2 was based on Florida's state law that prohibits motorists from flashing after-market emergency lights, even though it's not clear that the lights Kintner used were after-market. (Note: laws like this may help explain why Florida made TCC's "Worst States for Driving" list.)

Ultimately, Kintner sued, arguing that the Florida law was misapplied in his case and that the Sheriff's Office was violating his civil rights.

Judge Alan Dickey agreed with the plaintiff, saying that Florida's law didn't apply to people who, like Kintner, used their headlights to communicate. Earlier this week, Dickey amended and broadened that ruling, stating that using headlights to communicate is free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution. 

Kintner has also filed suit against Florida Highway Patrol and hopes for a similar ruling in that case. In the meantime, both the Seminole County Sheriff's Department and the Florida Highway Patrol have stopped writing tickets for headlight-flashing. 

Our take

It would be easy to side with Judge Dickey in this case. Kintner wasn't speeding himself, he was just alerting others to a deputy's presence down the road. If Kintner were interfering with a sting operation aimed at a particular criminal, that would be a different story, but clearly, the deputy didn't have specific lawbreakers in mind. He or she was just hoping to pick off random speeders.

On the other hand, you could argue that Kintner was aiding and abetting lawbreakers -- in much the same way that software developers were accused of helping drunk drivers by creating apps to spot sobriety checkpoints. Drunk driving and speeding are both dangerous: how do you draw a line between the two types of offenders, other than to say that speeding is somehow less dangerous than drunk driving? 

Feel free to debate these and other fine points of law in the comments below. And be sure to check out Kurt's take on the story over at MotorAuthority.com.

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