Missouri Driver Sues City Over Ticket for Speed-Trap Warning

Class-action suit says drivers should be able to warn others of speed radars.

July 22, 2013, 11:41 AM
PHOTO: Michael J. Elli, Ellisville, Mo., citation, headlights, speed trap.
Michael J. Elli was driving in Ellisville, Mo., last year when he was given a citation for flashing his headlights to oncoming drivers, warning them of a police officer parked alongside the road tracking speeds.
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July 23, 2013— -- A Missouri man says his free-speech rights were violated when he was given a ticket for flashing his headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed-trap.

Michael J. Elli was driving in Ellisville, Mo., last year when he saw a police officer parked alongside the road tracking speeds with a radar gun. Elli flashed his headlights to warn oncoming drivers to slow down, his attorney Grant R. Doty told ABC News.

"It's like when you are on a vacation, and you stop at a truck stop and mention to a person there that you saw a speed-trap a mile down the road," Doty said.

The police officer, identified as John Doe in the lawsuit, pulled Elli over in March 2012 and issued a ticket for violating a local law against flashing lights on certain kinds of vehicles.

"No reasonable officer" would find that Elli violated the law, according to the suit, adding that Doe wrote the ticket "in retaliation for … having engaged in expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment."

"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," Doty stated in the lawsuit.

Elli has since sued the city of Ellisville in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all Ellisville drivers. It's unclear how many drivers, if any, will join the suit, which asks for unspecified monetary damages.

Elli filed the lawsuit in April and requested a temporary injunction in late June to prevent Ellisville from issuing further citations.

"Without the temporary injunction, Mr. Elli cannot flash his lights without fear of being arrested," Doty said. "He is being silenced from speaking."

The judge has yet to rule on the temporary injunction.

"Just as the government cannot criminalize you in the situation in the truck stop for sharing a message verbally, the government cannot criminalize Mr. Elli for sharing a message with his headlights," Doty said.

"We think that the policy and practice is unconstitutional and we are interested in challenging similar laws all throughout Missouri as well."

In its response to Elli's lawsuit, the city of Ellisville told the court that it has directed its officers not to issue tickets to "motorists who flash their headlamps on and off … in both emergency and non-emergency situations."

The response is inadequate, lawyer Doty said, because it does not prevent the city from stopping drivers who flash their headlights on the grounds of state law.

The police chief for the city of Ellisville did not return a request for comment.

This is not the first time a class-action suit has been filed against a law enforcement agency for ticketing drivers who warn others of speed-traps.

In 2011, Erich Campbell sued the Florida Highway Patrol for ticketing him after he warned other drivers of police presence on a highway using his headlights. The suit was dismissed after the Florida Highway Patrol issued an order preventing state troopers from issuing such tickets to drivers flashing their headlights, according to court documents obtained by ABC News.

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