For the past three years or so, investigators from the Broward Public Defender’s Office have been going through local law enforcement records with tweezers, picking out any pattern of suspected race-based policing. The digging brought to light, among other patterns, “Biking While Black,” the Fort Lauderdale PD’s practice of using a bicycle-registration ordinance as pretext to stop people in black neighborhoods.
Now, the same investigators have unearthed a new one: “Driving With Tinted Windows While Black.” This time, the pattern involves the Broward Sheriff’s Office in Deerfield Beach. And it’s not just public defenders who are concerned; a Broward judge recently pointed out the pattern, causing a cop to leave her courtroom in a huff.
In the scale of window-tinting, a completely clear piece of glass is considered 100 percent transparent; a completely black one, 0 percent. Under the law, tint cannot be below 28 percent. Police can check the tint level with a hand-held device and issue citations to offenders.
Earlier this year, Al Smith, an investigator in the Public Defender’s Office, looked at citations for tinted-window violations issued in Deerfield Beach between May 1, 2013, and May 1, 2015. His data showed that the complexions of the people getting the citations broke down as such: 55 percent African-American, 36 percent white, and 9 percent Hispanic. The rate doesn’t match up with the overall population: The 2010 census found Deerfield Beach’s black population at 25 percent, white at 69 percent, and Hispanic at 14 percent.
Also, the analysis found that 33 percent of the tinted-window citations were being issued by BSO Crime Suppression Team officers, street-clothed cops tasked with working cases involving drugs, prostitution, guns, and warrant service — not the police who typically hand out traffic tickets.
In a July 29 letter sent to Broward State Attorney Michael Satz in which he alleged police misconduct among multiple agencies, Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein noted the tinted-window stats. “My office has learned that the Broward Sheriff’s Office also engages in racist police practices,” Finkelstein wrote.
When contacted by New Times for comment on Finkelstein’s findings, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel responded: “Racial profiling is illegal, and the Broward Sheriff’s Office does not condone it. Period. I take issue with inferences made by Mr. Finkelstein and would question the data being used to support his claims.”
But Finkelstein isn’t the only public official questioning the tinted-window stops.
In July, state attorneys and public defenders faced off in the Broward courtroom of Judge Mardi Levey Cohen. At issue was a possession-of-cannabis charge against 29-year-old Jamelle Howard, an African-American. In July 2014, detectives from the Deerfield Beach CST had stopped Howard on suspicion that his car windows were illegally tinted. The windows were legal, but the detectives reportedly smelled and spotted marijuana in the car.
But in court, when the arresting officer — BSO Detective Leonard Seedig — testified, it was revealed that the same officer had pulled over Howard again four months later, again regarding the windows, even though he already knew the tint was legal from the previous stop — same car, same windows, same driver.
In court, Seedig claimed not to have known he had pulled the car over previously. The judge, however, didn’t buy it. Not only did she dismiss the charge but she lashed out at the detective.
“The credibility of the witness — he was all over the place,” the judge said. “I don’t think he was being truthful. And the tint was so close, and I know in that area of the community what he does every day, he should know what the tint is. And I have to say, in my neighborhood, the cops never stop you for tint.
“The testimony regarding the tint, it’s just not credible that anyone would drive by and it would be that close, and especially the second time,” Levey Cohen continued. “I wonder if the officer is pulling people over for tints in that neighborhood just because that’s just what you do. But it’s not right, and people shouldn’t be stopped for that, and the tint was just too close, and he did it twice, which is shocking.”
At that point, Seedig walked out of the courtroom — a fact the judge noted.
“I’m just putting it on the record that he was somewhat disrespectful of the whole system. And I feel that pulling somebody over for the window tint being close but being legal and then doing it a second time proves that I was right when I said it the first time: that he did it pretext — pretextually.”
When asked to comment on Levey Cohen’s remarks, a BSO spokesperson stated: “It would be pure speculation as to why she made such comments.”