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Flashing your headlights: a first amendment right? (Part 2)

September 24th, 2011 by josh farley

Blogger’s Note: When a Florida man flashed his headlights to warn oncoming motorists of an upcoming speed trap, he was pulled over and ticketed. He’s taken the fight to court, where he’s filed a class-action lawsuit alleging his free speech rights were violated.

I’ve sought the perspective of two locals — Bremerton defense attorney Stan Glisson and Port Orchard top cop Al Townsend — to give us their take on this unusual but intriguing case. Here is Townsend’s commentary. Glisson’s essay appeared FridayBe sure to read up on the case first

JF: “A Florida man is suing for violation of his first amendment rights because he passed a speed trap and then flashed his headlights — and got ticketed for it. In Washington, would this type of thing be grounds for a ticket? Why or why not?”

AT: “It would NOT … The legal answer is state law forbids people from shining their high beam lights at other drivers in the range of 300 to 500 feet. So it would be uncommon in my mind for someone driving around after dark to get stopped if they are driving with their high beams on because they could be impacting the vision of oncoming cars.

Now, I suppose technically, if you are flashing your high beams at another car then you are driving with your high beams on and could be subject to that law.  But … we would not stop a  car for doing that as it relates to notifying other drivers of a radar zone or even when other drivers try to get the attention of a driver who is cruising down the road with his high beams on (to get his attention to shut them off).

In fact … if more people would do that when they see cops running radar, more people would slow down and accomplish our goal.

If one of my cops did the Florida thing and stopped a car for flashing his headlights at another car that was warning him of a radar set, he’d be on the carpet in my office … I can guarantee you it would only happen once.”

Al Townsend is police chief in the city of Port Orchard. Aside from his administrative duties, he is known as one of the few top cops who regularly patrols the streets with the line officers.

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3 Responses to “Flashing your headlights: a first amendment right? (Part 2)”

  1. Mike From Roswell Says:

    Chief Townsend, couple questions come to mind: How many unmarked cars do you have working traffic? Do you support the use of unmarked units for traffic patrol? Given the recent incidents involving police imposters using unmarked cars to effect “traffic stops” as a pretext to crimes would you support a statewide ban on the use of unmarked units for traffic enforcement?

  2. josh farley Says:

    Mike From Roswell:

    Here are Chief Townsend’s responses. He asked me to post them:

    How many unmarked cars do you have working traffic?
    We do not have unmarked cars working traffic specific functions. However, we do have supervisors, admin units, and detectives in unmarked cars that on occasion make traffic stops. Being a small department, all of our vehicles that are driven by commissioned officers are equipped with emergency lights and siren since many times these unmarked units serve to respond to calls or even stop cars on occasion.

    Do you support the use of unmarked units for traffic patrol?
    My personal preference would be to not have unmarked units assigned as traffic enforcement units. Our agency will not assign an officer to a traffic unit in an unmarked vehicle. I understand the concern about unmarked units and the possibility of impostors, and whenever someone is uncomfortable with an unmarked car stopping them, they can call 911 and verify that they are being stopped by an officer. But keep in mind that unmarked vehicles can make a significant impact on certain crimes and they clearly have a place in police departments. And to say to those assigned to them that they can’t take enforcement action when necessary would be greatly limiting our ability to be effective. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for me to be heading somewhere and stopping someone that is driving in some ridiculous manner. But, for a specific assignment as a traffic enforcement officer, I’m not in favor of the unmarked car as their primary unit.

    Given the recent incidents involving police impostors using unmarked cars to effect “traffic stops” as a pretext to crimes would you support a statewide ban on the use of unmarked units for traffic enforcement?
    I couldn’t support language that said “unmarked cars won’t make traffic stops”; but I would be willing to consider some type of language that “prohibits officers assigned to traffic enforcement units from using unmarked cars as their primary police vehicle.”

  3. Mike From Roswell Says:

    Thanks Chief, it sounds like we are on the same page with this. I appreciate you taking the time to reply to this. Now lets get badges and lights on all those WSP units!

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