Florida Highway Patrol faces lawsuit for ticketing drivers who warn of speed traps

Kicking up a cloud of dust, a Florida trooper cut a U-turn across the Interstate 75 median, chased down Miramar resident Paulo Gualano and pulled him over, Gualano recalled.

Gualano, 55, wasn't ticketed for speeding. Or reckless driving. He didn't even have a tail light out as he was returning home from Naples on a November morning last year.

"I saw a trooper hidden, so I flashed my headlights for the oncoming traffic," Gualano said.

He said he was being friendly, offering the common courtesy of alerting fellow drivers to a speed trap.

"And I paid for it," he said.

Now the Florida Highway Patrol is the subject of a class-action lawsuit, filed Aug. 24, accusing the agency of unlawfully ticketing thousands of drivers statewide for flickering their headlights to warn others of speed traps.

Five days after the suit was filed, uniformed FHP personnel received a memo from an acting deputy director telling them not to cite motorists for signaling others about law enforcement until the courts resolve the case. The memo gives no indication whether FHP improperly issued tickets.

When troopers catch drivers giving away their location, they usually cite a statute that says "flashing lights are prohibited on vehicles except as a means of indicating a right or left turn, to change lanes," or to indicate the vehicle is stopped on the road.

But Marc Jones, an attorney based in the Central Florida city of Oviedo, says he has challenged many tickets issued under the lawsuit and has never lost. Flashing your high beams, he says, is not illegal.

"If you look at that statute, ‘flashing lights' is a noun, not a verb ... not the action of flicking your lights on and off," said Jones, who is leading the suit on behalf of more than 2,400 Floridians who he says have been ticketed under the code between 2005 and 2010.

Some news reports have even indicated as many as 10,000 drivers have been cited, but an FHP spokesman said the number may not be in the thousands at all.

"Because of the media interest that this has generated, we reviewed our citations," FHP Capt. Mark Welch said.

They discovered 83 citations for "flashing lights" in the last 12 months that could possibly be because drivers were warning others about speed traps, he said. Welch would not comment on the way troopers interpret the law because of the lawsuit. He could not be reached Thursday afternoon to comment on the memo.

Another Miami-area driver passing through Collier County received a $113 ticket for flashing his lights in January, FHP records show. The trooper commented that there was an officer in the median "that I believe he was attempting to warn traffic about."

Not true, says Oscar Guerra, 44, of Hialeah. He paid the ticket, but still maintains that he was only trying to tell a friend in a car ahead of him to answer his cell phone.

Six other drivers were ticketed in Collier County in the past year for flashing their lights. Another trooper wrote that a motorist was "flashing headlights to warn drivers of our detail."

The practice is so common that many drivers don't know they can be cited for it, as many of them indicated to the troopers who pulled them over, the FHP traffic records show.

"What is going on is just plain wrong," Jones said. "Someone has to stand up and fight for what is right."

His complaint, filed in the Second Judicial Circuit Court in Leon County, argues that state law enforcement are issuing the tickets to gather fines, something Jones says is tantamount to racketeering.

"This is one big enterprise by traffic enforcement to generate money," he said.

Since he filed the lawsuit in August, Jones said hundreds of people have called his law office hoping to recover what they paid for similar tickets. The only plaintiff named in the suit is a man from Pasco County who was driving through Hillsborough County in 2009.

If the suit is successful, Jones said he hopes Floridians who were ticketed for flashing lights will be reimbursed for their fines and court costs and that an injunction will prevent officers from citing more drivers.

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