TALLAHASSEE — Erich Campbell thought he was just being helpful the night he flashed his headlights on a busy Tampa highway to warn drivers of a police speed trap ahead.
The Florida Highway Patrol didn't appreciate the help. Officers pulled Campbell over and ticketed him.
Flashing your lights is illegal, they said.
Claiming no such law exists, Campbell, 38, of Land O'Lakes, got angry. Now he wants to get even: He filed a lawsuit on behalf of every other driver in Florida ticketed for the same violation over the past six years, accusing police of misinterpreting state law and violating motorists' free speech rights.
"This is a pattern, and it has mostly to do with frustrated police officers who feel they were disrespected," Campbell said. "When someone comes along and rats them out, they take offense to it."
Capt. Mark Welch, a spokesman for the FHP, cited a law that says "flashing lights are prohibited on vehicles" except for turn signals. Welch said he could not comment in detail because of the pending legal case.
Campbell and his attorney, J. Marc Jones of Oviedo, say police are misinterpreting a law that's meant to ban drivers from having strobe lights in their cars or official-looking blue police lights.
Soon after Campbell sued the state, the Highway Patrol on Aug. 29 ordered all troopers to stop issuing tickets to motorists who use headlights as a signal to other drivers.
"You are directed to suspend enforcement action for this type of driver behavior," said the memo from Grady Garrick, acting deputy director of patrol operations.
Campbell, a student at St. Petersburg College's Tarpon Springs campus, was driving his Toyota Tundra pickup on the Veterans Expressway in Tampa on a Monday night, Dec. 7, 2009, when he spotted two black state trooper cruisers parked in the median.
When he saw them, he said, he flashed his headlights a few times to alert motorists headed in the opposite direction.
"Within 60 seconds, they had me pulled over," Campbell said.
The ticket was for $115, but Hillsborough County Judge Raul Palomino dismissed it, and Campbell never paid a dime.
Campbell's lawsuit, filed in circuit court in Tallahassee, cites similar cases in Escambia, Osceola, Seminole and St. Lucie counties in which tickets for flashing were all dismissed by judges.
"In each of these examples," the lawsuit claims, "Florida courts properly found that (the law) does not prohibit the flashing of headlights as a means of communication," which the suit calls "a right of free speech."
The lawsuit estimates that 2,400 motorists in Florida were cited for headlight-flashing between 2005 and 2010. It asks a circuit judge to certify the case as a class action on behalf of those other motorists, which means that if the state loses, it could be forced to return a lot of money.
The state has not formally answered the lawsuit yet.
All of the defendants in the case report to either Gov. Rick Scott or Scott and the three-member Cabinet: highway safety chief Julie Jones; Col. David Brierton, chief of the Highway Patrol; and Ananth Prasad, secretary of the Department of Transportation.
Jones noted that a different section of law allows drivers to flash their headlights at night when they're passing another vehicle. "Visible blinking of the headlamps," is how the law puts it.
Asked about that apparent contradiction, the FHP's Welch said: "This is something that's going to be dealt with in the litigation. It's not something I can comment on."
Jones said he has been besieged with calls from motorists after the case got a burst of attention on several TV stations, and it has attracted attention in out-of-the-way places, too.
In an editorial headlined "Keep flashing legal," the Panama City News Herald said: "Campbell and other flashers actually encourage motorists to obey the law. Shouldn't that be FHP's only concern?"
After Campbell got his ticket, he did some research online and discovered Alexis Cason, 22, of suburban Orlando, who received a similar ticket in 2005, hired the same lawyer (Jones) and won her case.
"For me, this has to do more with the principle than the cost," Campbell said.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.