Flashing high-beam headlights to warn other drivers about nearby law enforcement is protected as free speech under the Oregon Constitution, a local judge has ruled.
Jackson County Justice Court Judge Joe Charter ruled March 26 that when a motorist on Highway 140 last September used his high-beams to warn other motorists about a sheriff's deputy in the car behind, he was expressing himself and not breaking any laws.
Christopher Hill, of Klamath Falls, was driving his commercial truck westbound on Highway 140 near White City while a Jackson County sheriff's deputy drove behind him.
"It's a pretty common practice for truck drivers to holler over the CB radio about law enforcement," said Hill, who sometimes signals when law enforcement is nearby by flashing his lights or sticking out two fingers sideways.
When an eastbound sheriff's deputy spotted Hill flashing his high-beams at a UPS truck, he radioed the deputy behind Hill, who pulled him over.
Hill was cited for unlawfully using his headlights but contested the ticket, saying free speech protected his actions.
"(Charter) was looking up my argument and couldn't find anything within the law," he said.
While there are laws that restrict the use of high-beam headlights, including when oncoming traffic is within 500 feet of a car, Charter wrote in his ruling that these laws are in place so other drivers aren't blinded by the bright lights.
"I thought the law was pretty clear," said Charter, who ruled that because Hill admitted he was flashing his high-beams intentionally to warn other drivers, he wasn't misusing his lights to blind them.
In the same way that drivers might flash their lights to alert another driver of their intention to pass or to signal that it is safe to change lanes, Hill's behavior could be characterized as communication or an "optical horn," Charter said in his finding.
Charter also said that under the Oregon Constitution, speech and expressive conduct are broadly protected, and that laws can't restrain free expression.
"If you were riding on someone's tail with your brights on — then that's a violation," said Charter. "But Oregon has a very broad protection of expression."
Hill, as the owner of a commercial trucking company, said a traffic violation could have impacted his record and caused a legal headache.
"It's kind of a big deal here for trucks to get a violation, and it goes on your records," said Hill.
Although the facts of Hill's case led to his ticket being thrown out, Charter said, each case of drivers cited for unlawfully using their headlights would have to be reviewed separately.
"I worry that people will read too much into this. I can't prejudge other cases, it will depend on the facts of the other cases," he said.
A federal judge in Missouri earlier this week issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the town of Ellisville from arresting and prosecuting drivers who flash headlights to warn others of nearby police. The ruling was made in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that claimed such flashing of headlights was protected as free speech, according to an Associated Press story.
Teresa Ristow is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email her at email@example.com.