It isn’t every day that a driver successfully invokes the United States Constitution to get out of a traffic ticket. However, Michael J. Elli of Ellisville, Missouri (the names are apparently an odd coincidence) has succeeded in doing just that.
According to court records, Mr. Elli was a model driver who “had not been alleged to have committed any moving violation or other infraction for more than thirty-five years.” His streak was broken on November 17, 2012, when he noticed a speed trap on the other side of the road. Mr. Elli flashed his lights to warn oncoming drivers of the trap. A police officer travelling on the other side of the road noticed Mr. Elli flashing his lights, and pulled Mr. Elli over. Mr. Elli’s violation? According to the ticket: “flashing lights on certain vehicles prohibited. Warning of RADAR ahead.”
Mr. Elli was alleged to have violated an Ellisville law that prohibited the use of flashing lights except on certain vehicles, like ambulances or school busses. When Mr. Elli appeared in court, he learned that he was about to be fined $1,000. He protested that he hadn’t violated the law because he didn’t have a flashing light similar to an ambulance or school bus, rather he had just flashed his perfectly normal lights. According to court records, “the judge became agitated and asked the Plaintiff if he had ever heard of obstruction of justice.”
Mr. Ellis brought suit in federal court seeking an injunction against the enforcement of the law against drivers who flash their lights to warn of speed traps and was successful. The federal court relied on the free speech clause of the First Amendment to justify its decision and reasoned that when a driver flashes his or her lights at oncoming cars, there is a clear message communicated. The city’s practice of ticketing drivers who flash their lights to warn of speed traps was unconstitutional because it punished speech: the clear communication of a message about a speed trap. Notably, the city initially tried to argue that the flashing of lights might interfere with the investigation of a crime (another punishable offense), but the court reasoned that the flashing of lights is actually an invitation to bring one’s conduct into compliance with the law.
Mr. Elli is one of a very small group of people to successfully raise a First Amendment challenge to a traffic law. Mr. Elli’s constitutional creativity paid off. The First Amendment, for the time being, protects our dearly held liberty to warn other drivers of speed traps.
You can read the (fairly short) court opinion here: http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/michaelelli2.pdf.