ST. LOUIS (CN) - A federal class action claims a St. Louis suburb unconstitutionally tickets drivers who flash their headlights to warn other drivers about a city speed trap - a method of speech.
Lead plaintiff Michael J. Elli sued Ellisville, pop. 9,200, 25 miles west of St. Louis.
Elli claims the ticket he got from an Ellisville police officer for flashing his headlights at oncoming traffic on Nov. 17, 2012 violated his right to free speech.
He also claims that when he appeared in court to fight the ticket, "the judge became agitated and asked (him) if he had ever heard of 'obstruction of justice.'"
The complaint states: "Plaintiff observed a speed trap.
"Plaintiff communicated by flashing his headlamps to drivers approaching in the
opposite direction - none of whom plaintiff suspected of violating any law - that they should proceed with caution.
"The flashing of headlamps is commonly understood as conveying the message to slow down and proceed with caution.
"The Missouri Department of Revenue, which is responsible for the licensing of
drivers within the State of Missouri, recommends drivers flash their headlamps to warn other drivers of emergencies.
"Plaintiff did not violate any law."
Elli claims it was the first ticket he got in 35 years of driving. He says the John Doe officer cited him for violating an Ellisville ordinance limiting flashing signals on vehicles.
Elli says no reasonable officer would believe that he violated the law.
He claims Ellisville Police Chief Tom Felgate told him it's a moving violation, so points would be assessed against him if he were found guilty.
"When plaintiff appeared in municipal court, as directed on the citation, he was
advised by the municipal judge that the standard punishment imposed in the City of Ellisville for using headlamps to communicate the presence of a speed-trap is a $1,000.00 fine," the complaint states.
"When plaintiff asserted to the municipal judge that he wanted to plead not guilty
because he did not believe flashing headlamps violated § 375.100, the judge became agitated and asked plaintiff if he had ever heard of 'obstruction of justice.'"
Elli pleaded not guilty and was told to come back to court on Feb. 21, 2013, but the charges were dropped on Feb. 12.
"Upon information and belief, it is a widespread practice of the City of Ellisville to
pull over, detain, and cite individuals who are perceived as having communicated to oncoming traffic that a speed-trap is ahead by flashing their headlamps, and then prosecute and impose fines upon those individuals," the complaint states.
"In addition, the widespread practice includes citing and prosecuting individuals
for violation of an ordinance that no reasonable officer would believe the individuals had violated, without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe they had violated any law, and in retaliation for the individuals having engaged in conduct protected by the First Amendment.
"City officials, including Felgate, are aware of the widespread practice of citing
and prosecuting individuals for violation of an ordinance that no reasonable officer would believe the individuals had violated, without reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe they had violated any law, and in retaliation for the individuals having engaged in conduct protected by the First Amendment."
The class consists of anyone who drove in Ellisville and communicated or did not communicate with oncoming drivers by flashing their headlights, for fear of a ticket. Elli wants Ellisville enjoined from ticketing motorists who flash their headlights and damages for constitutional violations and malicious prosecution.
He is represented by Anthony Rothert with the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
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