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My post on the increasing use of speed cameras back about ten days ago in which I though I was attacking the surveillance state attracted some criticism because it revealed inter alia that I am a reckless speeder. Now there is a piece in today’s Wash Post about a man driving to a ball game who was flashed by a car traveling in the opposite direction to warn him that there was a speed trap up ahead. He flashed back, was detected by an eagle eyed police officer, and fined \$50 because flashing headlights in Maryland is illegal. The police are also considering charging him with “obstructing a police investigation.”

Let it be known up front that I routinely warn other drivers about police speed traps by flashing my lights. Back in my youth it New Jersey it would have been considered unchivalrous to do otherwise. I will continue to engage in the practice as long as I drive. I suspect that there is a philosophical issue underlying my desire to play cat and mouse with the police. Some regard the police as stalwart men in blue who do no wrong and who uphold civic virtue. Having worked in an intelligence agency, somewhat akin to police work, I have a different viewpoint. Cops are guys holding down a job who do what they are told to do. They are not necessarily heroes or martyrs. If the local county is revenue shy and can work out some ingenious ways to fine the citizenry to raise money they will do so and the police will be tasked to pull in more miscreants and whack them with heavy fines. It is my responsibility to deny the state my earnings, so I will do what I have to do to avoid that possibility. Not long ago I was pulled over by a cop at three in the morning on a completely empty highway because I had changed lanes without signalling. \$80 bucks gone. Was I doing something unsafe or life threatening? Clearly not. Americans once had a certain respect for the police tempered by the healthy understanding that they are part of a system that might not actually be working in favor of the average citizen. Check out the view of police expressed in a novel by Dash Hammett or Raymond Chandler, for example. The cop could as easily be an enemy as a friend. Which comes back to the central issue of state intrusion in people’s lives. Passing a law prohibiting flashing lights on a car is clearly designed to make it easier for police to catch people, whether or not they are behaving recklessly. It denies the people the right to have some pushback in a system which is heavily weighted against the individual. I might also suggest that the right to flash my car lights might have something to do with the First Amendment since it is a form of communication.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Miscellaneous, Traffic 
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  1. Very obviously “flashing” is a form of communication. Moreover, a prohibition against advising fellow citizens to slow down exposes speed limits and speed traps as devices for stealing/earning revenue rather than encouraging safe driving.

  2. First, I agree with everything Mr Giraldi has said, in his post above.

    I would point out that there is only minor difference between an undercover CIA agent, and a local cop sitting in a speed trap. Is the only difference, one of degree of danger to the officer, if discovered? That is, how would we feel about “outing” undercover agents, if we could prove that they are “up to no good”, and their life is not currently in danger? Like what some people call the traitors, Valarie Plame and Joe Wilson.

    I think that a camera is a good way of more cheaply establishing police presence, and the rule of thumb should be, cameras are only allowed to be placed where there is a reasonable expectation that a policeman would also be allowed to be in that same place. That is, if a policeman is allowed to patrol some area, it does not matter whether or not the citizen can actually see the officer, or speed trap, or camera.

    What I think is much more insidious, is the action of setting up a roadblock, near an urban area, in mid-to-late evening after rush hour, as a training exercise. They stop everyone, check for signal-light function, proper license paperwork, and proof of insurance and ID. Republicans didn’t have the will to end this evil practice, and it took the liberal’s love of illegal aliens to actually curtail this police-state encroachment.

    As we celebrate Obama’s reaching out to all the foreign leaders that we thought of as evil, a year ago, then too let us celebrate and welcome all those who a year ago had the “Us and Them” attitude towards our government. Now “You” are “Them”, and you can join us in embracing this notion of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Any “new” conservatism that is created, won’t interest me until there is a plank that includes identifying and ridding ourselves of any politician that puts themselves “above the people”, as if they were some “ruling class”.

    Then and only then, we could begin to set up a police force that is expected to “protect and serve”, instead of “enforce the rules and help collect the taxes”.

  3. TomB says:

    “I might also suggest that the right to flash my car lights might have something to do with the First Amendment since it is a form of communication.”

    Nice try (if indeed a try at all instead of just a jape), but one criminal assigned to be the lookout yelling “Cheese it the cops!” to his burgling buddies is communicating too, with the First Amendment still not being robust enough to insulate the lookout from gaol.

    On the other hand I have flashed my lights at the odd on-coming car now and then because it appeared to me the driver might not be paying attention and I wanted to see if he was paying attention, or should I be concerned about him or her veering into my lane. I.e., “necessity,” which I think can even be a defense against violating a law such as a “no-blink” law. Or, even better, “self-defense”!

    Better than any Larry Craig “I just naturally have a wide-stance” defense along the lines of “I was fumbling with my cell phone/coffee cup/cigarette/whatever and am just naturally a bit clumsy when I accidentally hit my switch caused my lights to blink.”

    Beyond all that, if one’s state doesn’t ban radar detection devices how in the world can it argue that its law against “impeding a criminal investigation” covers flashing?


  4. American law enforcement and government so depends on vehicle stops that it’s surprising that more isn’t done to protect citizen motorists from cavalier and frivolous abuse.

    I got one of the those Maryland Robo-tickets recently. As a former peace officer I can say that my local jurisdiction’s position is that flash-warning oncoming motorists is a good practice because it slows people down. Fining motorists who do so is an admission that you are using enforcement for revenue over safety.

    The problem is that most (all?) states treat driving as a privilege rather than as a right. It may have been a privilege a hundred years ago, but it is a necessity today. Governments shamelessly use this power to fleece and abuse citizens. My own home town is a notorious speed trap. Speed limits were lowered on our main thoroughfare until the desired number of enforcement actions (revenue) were produced. Shameless, obvious and loathed by the locals, this practice continues because no one is willing to appear in favor of speeding. And God help the politician who runs afoul of the Mothers Against Drunken Driving!

    Increasingly Governments on all levels are using the drivers license as a tool in social coercion. Violating many laws now invokes the loss of one’s license, even when the infraction has nothing to do with driving.

    With the rise of suburbs and passing of the old urban pedestrian culture, the government uses the excuse of traffic enforcement as a tool top enforce other laws. The war on drugs would be crippled without wide powers to stop and search motorists and their vehicles. The endless and selective hunt for drunks is another obsession of government.

    Finally, I find that many liberals seem to be anti-automobile and love to interfere with driving generally. Unrealistically low speed limits, governmental reductions in parking spaces and or rapacious parking meter enforcement, and the blocking off of thoroughfares to create bogus pedestrian malls, are all favorite tactics. It’s time motorists fought back . But as in many other abusive situations, Americans complain but do nothing.

  5. MikeB says:

    TomB said <> Sorry Tom, you’re wrong. The person yelling is a criminal because he is engaged in a conspiracy to commit a burglary. If a citizen is walking down the street and sees some cops and shouts, “There are cops here!”, that is protected speech.

  6. TomB says:

    Mike B:

    Mike, I wasn’t disputing that it’s a matter of intent/mens rea. My point was solely to say that merely because something is, as Phil said, a “form of communication,” that this doesn’t make it protected.

    Indeed of course sometimes speech alone all by itself alone and pure can be a crime, such as, say, inciting one to riot.

    Otherwise your hypothetical is interesting. I would *hope* that you are right and that your citizen would be so protected, but I think your hypothetical is still distinguishable from Phil the Flasher’s case. That is, your citizen knows nothing; Phil has seen the cop sitting there by the side of the road with the radar gun.

    So to change your hypo to match somewhat what if your citizen who saw the cops was in some venue where he knew the cops were doing some surveilling for drugs—just as Phil the flasher has already seen the cop and knew that speeders were possibly approaching?

    Your guy then makes his famous yell: “There are cops here!” just simply out of an anti-police animus.

    I’d bet he could still well go down for something, just like a flasher could, with the First offering no protection. Obstructing, aiding and abetting; something.

    Is interesting; I’d bet there are cases with at least somewhat similar fact situations.

  7. I’m generally pro-cop and yet strangely, I flash too. I don’t know why. I’d like to add that I know of at least one cop who would not play this game for city hall: “If the local county is revenue shy and can work out some ingenious ways to fine the citizenry to raise money they will do so and the police will be tasked to pull in more miscreants and whack them with heavy fines. ”

    For, this individual believes they’re out to actually serve the public, and not write them for the most picayune of violations, possibly missing out on the opportunity to prevent violent crimes, etc. Rare, but such cops do exist..

  8. charlie says:

    “gaol”? You British? Here in America we’ve been spelling it “jail” for the last, oh, hundred years or so. An American friend of mine who was living in England had a local girlfriend who once said to him ” knock me up in the morning” which, of course, he misunderstood. Pretty funny. Cheers back atcha.

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