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Flashing Lights to Warn of Speed Traps Is Shielded

(CN) - A Missouri community cannot ticket drivers for warning fellow cars about speed traps by flashing their headlights, a federal judge ruled, finding it a matter of free speech.

Michael Elli had filed a class action against the town of Ellisville over the practice after he passed by a speed trap, flashed his lights at another driver and was ticketed for it in November 2012.

He was charged with violating a city ordinance that bans vehicles from flashing their lights, not including school buses, postal carriers and emergency vehicles.

When Elli appeared in municipal court, a judge advised the man that he faced a $1,000 fine. The judge allegedly became agitated at the possibility that Elli would plead not guilty, and asked Elli if he had ever heard of "obstruction of justice."

Charges against Elli were later dismissed.

U.S. District Judge Henry Autrey in St. Louis issued a preliminary injunction against the town Monday after concluding that Elli would likely succeed on his First Amendment claims.

The ordinance was "clearly inapplicable" to Elli's actions "from the beginning," according to the ruling.

"Even assuming, arguendo, that plaintiff or another driver is communicating a message that one should slow down because a speed trap is ahead and discovery or apprehension is impending, that conduct is not illegal," Autrey wrote.

Subsequent assurances from Ellisville that Elli will not face arrest or prosecution under the ordinance does not eliminate the "reasonable chilling effect," the judge added.

Ellisville has a new policy of refusing to issue more tickets under the ordinance, but that still does not ensure that Elli can exercise his free speech rights because the town can still ticket him under other laws - including a state law nearly identical to the ordinance on the books, according to the ruling.

Autrey also disagreed with Ellisville's suggestion at an earlier hearing that flashing headlights might be illegal interference with a police investigation.

"The expressive conduct at issue 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," Autrey wrote. "Missouri (but not Ellisville) makes it 'the crime of hindering prosecution if for the purpose of preventing the apprehension, prosecution, conviction or punishment of another for conduct constituting a crime he ... [w]arns such person of impending discovery or apprehension, except this does not apply to a warning given in connection with an effort to bring another into compliance with the law[.]'" (Parentheses, ellipses and brackets in original.)

Elli is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. Its executive director, Jerry Mittman, said Monday it has been contacted by many other individuals complaining of similar policies by other cities.

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