According to a new American Civil Liberties Union report, Black motorists in Florida are cited for seatbelt violations nearly twice as often as White motorists.


MIAMI – All over the country, it seems Black Americans must be concerned about being shot and killed for driving while Black (Samuel Dubose); walking while Black (Trayvon Martin); running while Black (Walter Scott); asking for help while Black (Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell); or even shopping while Black (John Crawford III).

Daniel Cross commutes daily from his home in Boca Raton to his office in Sunrise and puts on his seat belt before returning home. If he forgets to buckle up, Cross is much less likely to get a traffic ticket than would a Black motorist. (CHARLES TRAINOR JR./MIAMI HERALD/TNS)
Daniel Cross commutes daily from his home in Boca Raton to his office in Sunrise and puts on his seat belt before returning home. If he forgets to buckle up, Cross is much less likely to get a traffic ticket than would a Black motorist.

Though other “…while Black” activities may not get a Black American killed, it could certainly cause African-Americans to disproportionately be ticketed, fined, arrested, criminalized – or “all of the above.”

Last year, the Florida Courier reprinted a Tampa Bay Times report that Black Floridians in Tampa were often arrested for bicycling while Black.

Now, a new American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report, “Racial Disparities in Florida Safety Belt Law Enforcement,” adds a new racial concern: driving unbelted while Black.

According to the report, Black motorists in Florida are stopped and ticketed for seatbelt violations in far greater numbers than White motorists – nearly twice as often statewide, and up to four times as often in certain counties.

The ACLU is calling on the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate.

‘Shocking’ numbers
“The numbers are shocking. These racial disparities raise serious concerns that officers are engaging in racial profiling when enforcing the state’s safety belt law,” said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program and co-author of “Racial Disparities in Florida Safety Belt Law Enforcement.

“It raises a red flag when seatbelt enforcement by specific agencies leads to racial disparities that exceed even the dramatic statewide gap. These agencies must take steps to address the disparities and promote fair and impartial policing.”

The ACLU’s analysis is based on publicly available data reported by law enforcement agencies across Florida. The law requires each agency to annually report the race and ethnicity of anyone ticketed for failure to wear a seatbelt to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

“These findings contribute to concerns about racial profiling – the targeting of people for humiliating and often frightening detentions, interrogations, and searches without evidence of criminal activity and based on the individuals’ perceived race, ethnicity, nationality or religion,” the report states.

“…(These) findings underscore the need for policy reforms to help identify and address racial profiling, including expanded data collection and publication as well as enhanced training and supervision on bias-free policing.”

Law’s history
The Florida Safety Belt Law was enacted in 1986. It gave law enforcement officers the authority to stop and cite a driver for a violation of Florida’s safety belt requirements.

Initially, the law was a “secondary enforcement” statute, which permitted an officer to stop and cite a motorist only after seeing another legal violation.

Because of concerns about racial profiling , the law was amended in 2005 to require “each law enforcement agency” to “adopt departmental policies to prohibit the practice of racial profiling.” Agencies are legally required to record the race and ethnicity of every driver ticketed pursuant to the statute.

The laws continues to require that all law enforcement agencies maintain such policies and annually provide information to the governor, state Senate president and the speaker of the state House of Representatives about the race and ethnicity of people issued tickets for not buckling up. Annual reports are required to be submitted to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Amended again
In 2009, the safety belt law was amended to permit “primary enforcement,” which allowed law enforcement officers to stop and cite drivers solely for violating safety belt requirements. The Florida Conference of Black State Legislators and the ACLU of Florida fought the amendment.

They were concerned that primary enforcement of seatbelt requirements would open the door to racially motivated traffic stops.

In enacting the amendment, the Florida Legislature seemed to rely on requirements for law enforcement agencies to prohibit racial profiling and to annually collect and report race and ethnicity data concerning seatbelt citations to state authorities.

Years later, the ACLU report indicates that the Black legislators’ concerns were valid. And many law enforcement agencies don’t bother to report race and ethnicity statistics.

Still profiled
The report recounts events that have underscored the concern of communities across Florida that racial profiling continues to be a problem.

“In 2013 and 2014, media disclosed shocking reports that the Miami Gardens Police Department conducted thousands of illegal stops, frisks, searches, and arrests between 2008 and 2013 under a racially-motivated quota system that directed officers to target Black men between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Those reports led to a civil rights lawsuit in federal court and disclosed that Miami Gardens police officers had even subjected Black children to police-civilian encounters.

“Also in 2013, an ACLU report analyzing 2010 data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and the United States Census Bureau revealed that Black people in Florida were 4.2 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than White people – despite the fact that the federal government has documented that Black and White people use marijuana at comparable rates,” the narrative states.

Lopsided differences
Black people are ticketed, occasionally arrested, and subsequently fined or even imprisoned for low-level offenses at rates far out of proportion to their population figures, according to the report.

“An investigation into the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s enforcement of a bicycle registration law from 2010 to 2013 found that 86 percent of citations were issued to Black people, who constituted only 29 percent of the Fort Lauderdale population in 2013.

“In April 2015, a Tampa Bay Times investigation revealed that 79 percent of Tampa Police Department bicycle citations issued in the previous twelve years were given to Black people, who comprised only about a quarter of the Tampa population during the time.

“A CBS Miami report examined 44,860 marijuana cases closed between 2010 and 2014 in Miami-Dade County and found that 55 percent of the cases involved Black defendants, even though Black people made up less than 20 percent of the county’s population,” the report explains.

County culprits
In 2014, Black motorists were stopped and ticketed for seatbelt violations at nearly twice the rate as White motorists overall. Specific counties saw even greater disparities. Black motorists were stopped and cited:
• 4 times more often than White motorists by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office (Panama City area) in 2011 (the most recent year that this agency reported seatbelt citation data);
• 3 times more often than White motorists by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (West Palm Beach area) in 2014;
• 2.8 times more often than White motorists by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office (Orlando area) in 2014.
• 1.9 times more often than White motorists by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in 2014.

U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that in 2014, non-Hispanic Black people made up only 13.5 percent of Florida’s estimated statewide population of driving age (15 to 85 years old) living in a household with access to at least one vehicle.

Thousands fewer tickets
“If non-Hispanic Black people had been cited for seatbelt violations in proportion to their share of the estimated Florida driving age population with access to a vehicle in the household, they would have received 20,296 fewer citations in 2014,” according to the report.

The report notes that the differences in seatbelt-wearing behavior between Black and White people, as documented by statewide and national studies, do not explain the racial disparities in seatbelt citation rates identified in this report.

“Florida law enforcement agencies need to study these findings and ensure that the law is being applied without bias and is not being used as a tool to target some drivers based on race,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida.

Miami, Tampa ignore law
“What is also troubling is the failure to comply with the reporting requirements. We cannot have a law that requires the reporting of the race of ticket recipients and has no consequences for the agencies that fail to comply. Agencies such as the Miami Police and the Tampa Police (Departments), which have failed to report seatbelt citation data to state authorities in violation of the Florida Safety Belt Law, should promptly do so.”

The ACLU is urging the Florida Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights and local commissions charged with oversight responsibility to investigate agencies whose implementation of the law has met or exceeded the already large statewide racial disparity. Among those agencies are the sheriff’s offices for Escambia, Palm Beach, Orange, and Broward counties.

Enforce requirements
The ACLU also wants the Florida Legislature to pass a measure penalizing law enforcement agencies that fail to comply with the statute’s reporting requirement. These agencies include the Miami Police Department, the Tampa Police Department, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, and the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.

In addition, the report recommends that law enforcement collect and analyze data for all traffic and pedestrian stops; provide testing on implicit bias and training on bias-free policing to all officers; and retrain officers whose stop-and-citation practices result in large racial disparities.


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