Flashing Headlights to Warn Oncoming Drivers of a Speed Trap = Constitutionally Protected Speech

So held a Florida trial court judge, and he wasn’t the first — I think I’ve seen this in a few cases, but the one for which I have a citation is State v. Walker, No. I-9507-03625 (Williamson Cty. (Tenn.) Cir. Ct. Nov. 13, 2003)

Whether this is the right answer is not clear. It’s a special case of warnings to hide one’s illegal conduct because the police are coming — though here done by a stranger rather than by a lookout who’s in league with the criminals — and that in turn is a special case of what I call Crime-Facilitating Speech (see 57 Stan. L. Rev. 1095 (2005)), which is to say speech that conveys information that makes it easier for people to commit crimes or to get away with crimes. The Supreme Court has never squarely confronted this question.

When I’ve blogged about this in the past, some people have argued that flashing headlights should be protected because it’s encouraging legal behavior (slowing down) rather than illegal behavior, but I don’t think that can dispose of the issue: Many lookouts do the same, e.g., when a lookout warns would-be robbers to abandon their plans because a police car is driving by.

For an interesting similar question though one that doesn’t involve encouraging people to temporarily act legally), this story:

An advocate for immigrant and civil rights has started using text messages to warn residents about crime sweeps by a high-profile Arizona sheriff.

Lydia Guzman, director of the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group Respect/Respeto, is the trunk of a sophisticated texting tree designed to alert thousands of people within minutes to the details of the sweeps, which critics contend are an excuse to round up illegal immigrants.

Guzman said the messages are part of an effort to protect Latinos and others from becoming victims of racial profiling by sheriff’s deputies….

What’s the First-Amendment-relevant difference, if there is one, between this and a lookout who alerts criminals when the police are coming? (Assume that the lookout isn’t getting a share of the loot, but is just helping his friends avoid getting locked up.) Should it matter, as one expert who’s mentioned in the article suggests, whether Ms. Guzman’s real goal is preventing lawful arrest of illegal immigrants (as opposed to preventing racial profiling, assuming such profiling is unlawful)? I think there may indeed be a difference between such revelation of facts to the public and individualized communications to a small group of criminals, and I don’t think it should turn on jury inferences about the speaker’s true purpose; my article discusses the question at length. But in any event it’s helpful to think about what the difference might be.

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