Flashing your headlights to alert oncoming drivers that police are lurking on the roadside ahead will no longer be illegal in Florida, though a lawyer who has represented ticketed motorists says a new law legalizing the practice still has loopholes.
A provision legalizing such speed trap warnings is part of a wide-ranging motor vehicle law taking effect Tuesday with the new year. Other changes range from allowing homeless people to get free state identification cards to creating a pair of new specialty license plates. It also would for the first time permit the state to issue specialty driver licenses and ID cards.
Motorists like Martin Smellie didn't even know flashing headlines was against the law.
"I will try to warn my people that's driving because I would like somebody to warn me if they see the cop down the street," Smellie said.
Attorney J. Marcus Jones, who has helped headlight-blinking motorists get their tickets dismissed, said the new law doesn't go far enough.
"The action of the Legislature in our belief fell short," Jones said.
By the time the law was passed in March, the Florida Highway Patrol already had ordered state troopers to stop issuing tickets for high-beam flashing after being hit with a lawsuit Jones filed on behalf of Erich Campbell.
The St. Petersburg College student from Land O' Lakes was cited for violating an existing law that says "flashing lights are prohibited on vehicles" except for turn signals.
The lawsuit contends the Highway Patrol had been misinterpreting that provision in Florida's traffic code because it was meant only to ban drivers from having strobes or official-looking emergency vehicle lights on their cars and trucks.
To clear up any ambiguity, the new law amends that provision to specifically allow motorists to flash their headlights at an oncoming vehicle regardless of intent.
A Pinellas County judge dismissed Campbell's $115 ticket, but his lawsuit is in trouble.
Another judge in Tallahassee ruled it's a moot issue because of the new law. Jones, though, has asked Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll to reconsider because of the loopholes he believes it contains.
Jones said police still can use other sections of Florida's traffic code to ticket motorists for flashing their headlights. Those provisions include prohibitions against using high beams within 500 feet of an oncoming vehicle or within 300 feet of a vehicle ahead. The new exception for flashing headlights doesn't apply to those parts of the traffic code, Jones said.
If he can get Judge Carroll to change his mind, Jones then could seek class-action status and try to get refunds for an estimated 2,400 motorists who paid fines for flashing their high beams between 2005 and 2010.
"That would be a tough battle," Jones said. "We're trying to determine what to do next."
A new law also will create additional specialty tags for Vietnam War veterans and those who have won the Combat Infantry Badge.
Florida for years has had dozens of specialty plates to raise money for purposes including scientific research, education and charities.
Now, Florida has a new revenue-raising opportunity through specialty driver licenses and ID cards honoring public and private universities, professional sports teams and all branches of the military. There will be an additional fee of $25, with half going to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles and the other half to designated public or private organizations.
The new law also allows the department to use email instead of the U.S. Postal Service to send out driver license renewal notices; creates plates for retired governors and federal and state lawmakers; and repeals a provision that says school buses can go no more than 55 miles an hour even if the speed limit is higher.
It also would prohibit swamp buggies from operating on state roadways unless permitted to do so by local governments and allow golf carts to drive on sidewalks that are at least 5 feet wide alongside state highways.
Two other laws also are going into effect. The Florida Safe Harbor Act is designed to protect and provide shelter for sexually exploited children.
It includes provisions that require police to turn over to the Department of Children and Families any children who are alleged to be sexually exploited or dependent for assessment and possible shelter. The department can then place such a child in a safe house if one is available. The new law also has requirements for safe houses.
Another provision increases civil penalties from $500 to $5,000 for some violations related to prostitution. It directs $4,500 of every fine going to the department to fund safe houses and short-term safe houses. The remaining $500 will go, as it now does, for treatment-based drug court programs.
Among other laws going into effect Jan. 1, 2013:
- Mortgage holders must release mortgage information to record title property owners.
- Swamp buggies prohibited from operating on state roads.
- Golf carts can commute on sidewalks at least 5 feet wide.
For a complete list of the new laws, visit laws.flrules.org.