A lawsuit filed this week claims that 2,900 motorists were illegally ticketed in Florida between 2005 to 2010 for flashing their lights at oncoming, and speeding, cars to warn of speed traps ahead. Apparently the police have been giving tickets to drivers sending a friendly “Cheese it! The cops!” message to scofflaws, in solidarity against the hated men and women in blue without benefit of an applicable statute. The matter came to light when a college student on her way to school spotted two police officers on the side of the road and flashed her headlights to warn other drivers about the speed trap ahead. A police car pulled her over and the officer wrote her a ticket, saying she’d just broken the law by flashing her lights. She challenged the ticket and won, giving an enterprising lawyer an idea for class action lawsuit.
There is no Florida law that prohibits light-flashing, says Oviedo, Florida attorney J. Marcus Jones. He claims officers are simply misapplying a law that was designed to prohibit drivers from adding after-market emergency lights to their vehicles. He also claims that officers writing those tickets are violating a driver’s constitutional right to free speech. If motorists want to flash their lights to warn about a speed trap ahead, they are free to do so, according to his suit.
Clearly, if there is no law against what the student and the other drivers did, it is wrong to give them a ticket. Police can’t make up laws on the spot. There is no question in my mind that flashing lights for this purpose should be illegal …but it isn’t, not in Florida, not anywhere I could find. In Texas, for example, warning a motorist of a speed trap is explicitly excluded from the list of prohibited actions constituting interference with police duties.
It is unethical, however. If I see a speeding motorist, I’m hoping he gets pulled over. It is a matter of public safety. Why does anyone consider it virtuous to take the side of a lawbreaker against law enforcement trying to maintain public order and safety? This isn’t a legitimate application of the Golden Rule.
“Render warning unto others so they may break laws without penalty, as you would like to get away with breaking the same laws yourself.” Uh, no.
I also don’t think flashing a warning to lawbreakers is free speech, though again, the statutes and ordinances I’ve seen disagree with me. Pure speech is exempted from laws prohibiting citizens from interfering with police enforcement, and the courts have interpreted such flashes as speech, not conduct. The law can draw the fine line between allowing the government to ban radar detectors as tools to abet speeding, and pronouncing it legal, indeed a protected exercise of free speech, to warn dangerous speeders that justice is at hand, so they can slow down for a few hundred yards and commence speeding again once they are safely away from the police.
The class action in Florida wants a judge to issue an injunction banning all Florida police from writing light-flashing tickets, to reimburse drivers for the fines they’ve paid, to rule that officers are misapplying a law about add-on emergency lights. All quite right and just.
The problem is that this will create the impression that aiding and abetting speeders, who account for most of the vehicular deaths in America, is good and appropriate, even neighborly, conduct. It is, to the contrary, despicable, irresponsible, and unethical conduct that violates the duties of citizenship.
But it is legal, and likely to stay that way. This is one of the times that the law won’t and probably can’t step in to fix an ethical flaw in the culture. It is all up to us.