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When being a nice guy is a traffic crime

Silly me.

Here I was, thinking police officers hand out speeding tickets for the purpose of, you know, getting us drivers to slow down.

But the tale of how Erich Campbell of Land O'Lakes got popped on the Veterans Expressway for warning fellow motorists of troopers ahead could lead to a more cynical conclusion, or two.

As the Times reported this week, Campbell was driving along one night two years ago, saw those unmistakable Florida Highway Patrol cruisers hunkered down in the median and helpfully flashed his headlights at oncoming traffic.

Most of us know that as the universal signal for "Slow down, pal, radar ahead."

But did those troopers think: Okay, fair enough, drivers win this one, which is fine as long as folks slow down? Since that's our goal, getting them to go the speed limit?

They did not. They pulled Campbell over and slapped him with a $115 ticket for light-flashing under a law clearly intended in part to keep people from using their lights — particularly red, blue or flashing — to look like law enforcement.

So let me ask you: Ever had some good Samaritan flash his headlights at you from oncoming traffic and think: Oh, my gosh, that must be a cop? Me neither.

Now, if you are the cynical sort, you might think some police types care less about slowing down speeders and more about making money from pricey tickets.

And if you were even more cynical, you might wonder if Campbell's real crime that night was spoiling the hunt.

This reminds me of an enterprising fellow years ago who went around Ybor City putting money in meters near parked cars on behalf of some local businesses to make the place more visitor-friendly. The Meter Beater, he was called.

Cynical alert: Parking tickets were making more money than meters.

The young man ran afoul of meter readers. He got a talking-to. He said the words "obstructing justice" were thrown around. But in the end, thankfully, there were no charges. And currently it is not against the law to feed someone else's meter in Tampa. Seemed a no-brainer, but I checked anyway.

Campbell could have written this off as a bad night, particularly after the judge tossed out the ticket once he got done rolling his eyes. (I made up the eye-rolling part, though it could have happened.) Campbell, a college student who says he is lucky to have the time and the wherewithal, did not suck it up. He sued on behalf of himself and an estimated 2,400 drivers similarly cited between 2005 and 2010. And good for him.

Since this made news, he also has heard the opinion that he was somehow obstructing justice with that well-meaning flip of his lights. He wasn't, any more than a bartender who pours a drunk into a cab somehow shortchanges police out of an arrest. (His analogy, but I like it.)

"I'm just saying, 'Hey, mind your speed,' " he says.

His attorney, J. Marc Jones, says they're hoping for money to repay motorists who had to shell out on such charges. They would also like police officers to quit doing this.

It's interesting to note that after the lawsuit was filed, the Highway Patrol officially told its troopers to put the brakes on this type of ticketing.

A cynical type might read something into that, too.

When being a nice guy is a traffic crime 09/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 14, 2011 1:04am]
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