GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Hauling a truckload of logs to a Southern Oregon mill last fall, Chris Hill noticed a sheriff’s deputy behind him and flashed his lights to warn a UPS driver coming the other way.
The deputy pulled over Hill on U.S. Highway 140 in White City and handed him a $260 ticket for improperly using his headlights, saying another deputy had seen the flashing lights from behind the UPS truck and alerted him to stop the log truck because of the signalling.
Outraged, Hill decided to fight the ticket, and on Wednesday, a Jackson County Justice Court judge dismissed the citation, finding that motorists flashing their headlights amounts to speech protected by the Oregon Constitution.
Judge Joseph Carter determined the law covering the use of high beams was valid, but was unconstitutional as it was applied by the deputy.
“The citation was clearly given to punish the Defendant for that expression,” the judge wrote. “The government certainly can and should enforce the traffic laws for the safety of all drivers on the road. However, the government cannot enforce the traffic laws, or any other laws, to punish drivers for their expressive conduct.”
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office did not return a telephone call for comment.
Hill, 38, of Klamath Falls, has been driving truck for 10 years, and was not interested in seeing his insurance rates go up for getting a ticket. He initially told the deputy that the UPS driver was his neighbour, and he was just saying hello.
“My point to the cop was his partner didn’t know why I was flashing my lights,” Hill said. “He couldn’t tell for sure what I was doing.”
By the time his case went to court last month, Hill had researched the law and found nothing that expressly prohibited the use of headlights to signal other drivers. He also recalled a TV news story about a federal judge in the Midwest barring police from handing out tickets to drivers who flashed their lights to warn others of a speed trap ahead.
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll throw that in there, too,'” he said.
Acting as his own attorney in a hearing conducted by telephone, Hill said he acknowledged the UPS driver wasn’t his neighbour, and he raised the free speech argument.
“What I did wasn’t illegal, whether it’s freedom of speech or not,” he told The Associated Press.
Dave Fidanque, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, noted the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned a traffic law prohibiting horn honking for non-traffic purposes on similar grounds in the 1990s after a number of people got tickets for honking in support of U.S. troops during the first Gulf War.
“If the motive of the sheriff’s deputies was in fact not to make the roads safer, but to raise more revenue from traffic enforcement, that would be even more reason why it should be unconstitutional,” Fidanque said. “If this is part of a pattern, then it probably would be worth us looking into it in more detail.”