Flashing headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed trap
Marc Jones and Mike Jones, a father-and-son team of Oviedo lawyers, set out in 2011 to stop cops from ticketing drivers who flash their headlights to warn oncoming drivers of a speed trap. They got the law changed but lost a pair of lawsuits designed to force law-enforcement agencies to pay for violating the free-speech rights of those who were ticketed. "I think it's a victory for First Amendment rights," said Oviedo lawyer Marc Jones, who, along with his father, Mike Jones, sued the Florida Highway Patrol and Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger. "We got some big changes statewide, but we got zero dollars for it."
The Florida challenges started in 2011, after a Seminole County deputy wrote 28-year-old Ryan Kintner a ticket. Kintner spotted a speed trap in the gated community where he lived, near Lake Mary, and began flashing his headlights at oncoming traffic as a warning. "I felt an injustice was being done," Kintner said.
The Joneses filed suit against Eslinger in state circuit court in Sanford, asking a judge to halt the practice and to order the Sheriff's Office to pay damages. On its own, the Sheriff's Office ordered deputies to stop writing those tickets. So did sheriffs in Orange and Volusia counties.
Circuit Judge Alan Dickey gave Kintner a partial victory in 2012, ruling that when Kintner flashed his headlights he was lawfully exercising his First Amendment rights. The full case did not go to trial until October, and this time Kintner lost. Dickey ruled that he had failed to prove that the Sheriff's Office engaged in a pattern of writing those tickets.
The Joneses had alleged in their suit that Seminole deputies had written more than 100. The evidence showed that there had been just eight. Dickey said eight was not enough. "There was no practice, custom, pattern," said Andrew Debevoise, the sheriff's attorney. That ended that legal challenge. A separate judge threw out Kintner's ticket.
The Joneses' filed their second suit against the Florida Highway Patrol and every police agency in the state on Aug. 24, 2011. That suit was filed in Tallahassee on behalf of Tampa-area driver Erich Campbell and every other driver who'd been ticketed for flashing his lights in Florida between 2005-2010, some 2,900 people, according to J. Marc Jones. The Joneses sought an injunction ordering cops statewide to stop writing those tickets, pay damages to drivers who were wrongly ticketed and declare that officers were misapplying the law. It also accused officers who wrote those tickets of racketeering, theft and extortion. Within the week, FHP ordered its troopers to stop writing them. Several months later, the Florida Legislature rewrote the law, stating explicitly that drivers have the right to flash their headlights as a means of communication. The Tallahassee judge then threw out the case, saying the change in law made it moot. The Joneses appealed, managed to convince the Florida Supreme Court to revive the suit, but then lost again in November when the First District Court of Appeal handed down its final word.
The upshot of both cases, said Jones, is that the law was changed in favor of motorists. "Currently it is legal to flash your headlights at other motorists," Kintner said. "There should be no controversy in this. You're slowing people down. You're communicating." Said Debevoise, "You can flash until your heart's content."