The act of flashing one’s headlights or high beams at another driver can have many different meanings, one of which is to warn that a speed trap is ahead. Some states have enacted laws prohibiting this practice, ostensibly for public safety. New Jersey’s statute, for example, prohibits flashing headlights that are “projected into the eyes of the oncoming driver.” These laws tend to discourage communication among drivers about speed traps, and they give police a reason to pull people over. These two purposes came into direct conflict in a recent DWI case in New Mexico. A woman successfully argued that flashing her high beams at an oncoming car, which turned out to be a police vehicle, was protected free speech, and that the officer therefore lacked probable cause to pull her over.
The New Mexico woman was pulled over at around 10:00 p.m. on January 25, 2014. She stated that she thought the oncoming car had its high beams on, so she quickly flashed her high beams back and honked her car horn. The other car turned around, activated its emergency lights, and pulled her over. She was charged with violating a high-beam ordinance as well as aggravated DWI. The judge granted her motion to suppress evidence of her field sobriety test and chemical test results, finding that she had engaged in speech protected by the First Amendment. This resulted in the dismissal of the entire case. She has also filed a lawsuit against the city and the officer for civil rights violations.
Drivers in several states have successfully challenged high-beam citations on free-speech grounds. A federal judge in Missouri granted a permanent injunction in April 2014 that prohibited the town of Ellisville from enforcing a law against flashing headlights to warn of speed traps, finding that the plaintiff was likely to prevail on his free speech claims. An Oregon judge ruled that high-beam charges violated a driver’s free-speech rights under the state constitution, and a Florida judge issued a similar ruling in May 2012 applying the U.S. Constitution. Continue reading →