Taking Liberties: Bright Lights, Big Trouble

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Erich Campbell thought he was being helpful. The Florida Highway patrolman thought he was being obnoxious and disrespectful and gave him a $101 fine.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Campbell as he paced next to Veterans Highway in Tampa, Fla.

“I was in complete disbelief.”

Campbell’s crime?

He flashed his headlights to alert oncoming cars after passing that patrolman’s speed trap.

“It’s something I do,” he explained. "I don’t think it should be against the law."

In December 2009, the patrolman was set up on the southbound side of Route 589 near the Tampa International Airport. In a recording of the stop, the officer told Campbell he had seen his lights flashing. “It’s illegal,” he said before giving him a ticket that read “improper flashing of high-beams.”

Campbell eventually got the ticket dismissed, but he recently filed a class-action lawsuit against the state over writing similar citations.


“Because the state was rolling the dice (with me), he said. “They figured most people aren’t going to challenge it, and I think it’s about time someone actually did.”

Campbell estimates 2,600 other “highbeam-helpers” received summonses between 2005 and 2010. He says most simply chose to pay their fines.

“Someone has to stand up,” he says, referring to the tickets as a “huge money-maker” for the state, not to mention a "blatant violation of the right to free speech.”

“I have the right to communicate with my fellow drivers,” he said. “That’s my right.”
Guaranteed, he said, by the U.S. Constitution.

It’s a legal stance that’s caught the attention of law enforcement across the country.

“He has a definite different interpretation of the U.S. Constitution than I do,” said Thomas Ruskin. “And than most members of law enforcement.”

Ruskin is a former New York Police Department detective and current police advocate. He says flashing high beams is dangerous and clearly illegal.

“It's illegal because you're warning someone,” he explained. “It's the same thing as saying, 'run, here comes the cops,' You're obstructing a cop from doing his lawful duty.”

He said citizens do not have the right to interfere with a police action that is under way.

“He is aiding law-breakers,” said Ruskin. “He is warning people who are speeding to slow down. His intent is to impede the police.”

It’s a point Campbell says is impossible to prove.

“I may simply not like speeders and am telling others to slow down. They can’t prove my intent.”
Campbell maintains he has a “right to communicate” with fellow drivers.

“This is the way I communicate,” he said. “They can’t stop me from communicating.”

The Florida Highway Patrol would not comment on Campbell’s ticket or his lawsuit. It has, however, temporarily halted all summonses for headlight flashing.

“We have told our people to stop issuing citations on that,” said spokesman Capt. Mark Brown, “pending the outcome of the litigation.”

The case could go before a judge in the next couple months.