by Sam Levin
In the city of Ellisville police officers are regularly issuing citations to drivers who flash their headlights as warnings to other drivers -- and then charging them with fines as high as $1,000.
So says the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which is challenging the city for a policy that the group says violates First Amendment protections of drivers.
"It's ridiculous," Tony Rothert, ACLU-EM legal director, tells Daily RFT. "There are a lot of reasons to flash your lights."
In a formal complaint, full document on view below, the ACLU argues that it's not only an unfair police tactic -- it also breaches basic constitutional rights.
Daily RFT left messages today with the city attorney and another city official, and we will update if we hear back.
The case was brought forward on behalf of driver Michael Elli, who the ACLU says was driving along Kiefer Creek Road last November when he flashed his headlights to warn oncoming traffic to "proceed with caution."
He was subsequently pulled over by an Ellisville police officer and issued a citation for "flashing lights to warn of radar ahead."
When he appeared in municipal court, the ACLU says, "he was told the standard punishment is a $1,000 fine." That charge was eventually dismissed -- but now city officials will have to address this policy in court.
Rothert tells us that the ACLU has clear evidence that this is a regular practice of Ellisville police and not just a one-time incident.
"We've learned from city of Ellisville officials that this is a commonly charged offense," he says.
Continue for more details on the ACLU allegations and the full complaint.
It's a First Amendment right to communicate with other drivers this way, Rothert says, arguing that traffic laws are about promoting safety -- not generating revenue.
"Police are punishing someone because of their communication," he says.
The complaint also notes that the law in question is called (emphasis ours): "Limitations on Lamps Other than Headlamps - Flashing Signals Prohibited Except on Specified Vehicles." That means, according to the ACLU, this driver didn't even violate statute.
Either way, the practice is unconstitutional, says Rothert.
He also notes that the Missouri Department of Revenue, which is responsible for the licensing of drivers in the state, specifically recommends that drivers flash their headlamps to warn others of emergencies.
"It's something that a lot of people do," he says.
The complaint summarizes the problem this way:
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.
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.
Here's the full court document, filed yesterday.