Headlight-Flashing Unconstitutional? Recession Prompts Increased Traffic Citations And Related Litigation

On the road, neon yellow signs are universal symbols for caution. Equally recognizable, the color red indicates a stop.

And, for just as long, flashing headlights has been the unspoken signal between motorists warning of a nearby highway patrol officer.

These days, highway patrol officers have been known to issue tickets for flashing-lights. Citations and correlating fines have been issued across the nation, including New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, and Florida.

Now, these traffic violations, as well as First Amendment rights, are gaining traction in court.  

“The flashing of lights to communicate with another driver is clearly speech,” said lawyer, J. Marc Jones, to Florida Today (via WSJ). Jones represents Florida resident, Eric Campbell, in a class-action suit against ticketing for flashing-headlights.

Last month, Campbell filed a class-action lawsuit in Tallahassee against both the Florida Highway Patrol and other Sunshine State traffic-enforcement agencies. Campbell seeks an injunction prohibiting law enforcement officers from issuing headlight-flashing tickets.

Campbell’s class-action suit also seeks refunds and civil damages for previously-cited motorists. The lawsuit estimates that as many as 2,900 drivers were wrongfully issued traffic citations from 2005 to 2010.

In a recession, constitutional rights are often brought to the forefront of litigation. Cities and States short funding frequently resort to increased fines and citations for minor violations to compensate for budget cuts.

And, with the Fourth Amendment garnering so much attention of late, it was only a matter of time before the First Amendment received equal attention.   

“It’s not about traffic. This is about government going too far, the intentional misapplication of a statute solely to produce money. That’s just wrong,” Jones said to Florida Today.

Since the start of the economic recession, traffic fines in Florida have increased. A new law enacted Feb. 1, 2009, revved up the fine for traffic citations, which means more revenue for Florida but heavier burdens on speeding Florida residents.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, “Some officers say the new traffic fines, which seem to increase every year, are excessive, especially in light of the current recession.”

However, other Florida and traffic-enforcement representatives disagree.

Rich Roberts, spokesman for the International Union of Police Associations, said of the recent lawsuit against flashing-light citations, “Warning oncoming traffic that there are law enforcement officers ahead allows a speeder to slow down until he passes the officers—and then he starts speeding again.”

When there’s a battle between safety and liberty in America, who wins? Should this change during an economic downturn?

Depending on the outcome of this class-action, it’s at least safe to say more litigation will be on its way.

-WB

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