Bernd Westneck/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Bernd Westneck/dpa/picture-alliance/Newscom

Most people have probably done it. Some, if pressed, might concede that it isn’t the right thing to do. But most people probably wouldn’t think it was a felony, and would be aghast at the idea.

And that’s the problem.

Missouri resident Michael Elli wanted to let fellow motorists know about the presence of a “speed trap” under an overpass, set up by the police to target reckless drivers. To communicate that they needed to “slow down,” lest they be pulled over, he flashed his lights.

For this act, Elli was pulled over and charged with obstruction of justice. Yes, really.

To be sure, the police have an interest in maintaining secrecy in certain activities. Individuals who enable career criminals to escape justice by disclosing the existence of, or interfering with, police investigations are rightly arrested and punished for doing so.

But Elli wasn’t deliberately enabling career criminals. Rather, he was encouraging his fellow citizens to slow down—regardless of whether they were habitual leadfoots or had a momentary lapse.

It’s true that speed traps would ensnare more people if Elli and similarly minded citizens did not draw attention to them. While reducing the number of speeders may affect the number of speeding tickets that are issued, the purpose of the speed trap—and, indeed, law enforcement more generally—isn’t for cops to have things to do. It’s to prevent people from breaking the law and punishing them when they do. Moreover, it’s not inherently or obviously wrong to caution motorists to avoid activities that will get them pulled over.

While prosecutors eventually dropped the case against Elli, it’s disturbing that this happened in the first place. Activities that most have engaged in at one point or another (and certainly would not imagine would be illegal) should not be criminal if the criminal law is to have any relation to social expectations.

The Heritage Foundation’s project USA vs. YOU spotlights the flood of criminal laws threatening our liberties. Explore more stories of overcriminalization and find out what you can do to reverse this trend >>