Broward News

ACLU: Black Motorists Cited for Seat-Belt Violations Twice as Often as Whites

In what is almost certainly not news to people of color in Florida, the state's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has found that black motorists are cited for seat-belt violations twice as often as whites, despite the fact that seat-belt usage is roughly the same among members of both races.

Amid concerns regarding racial profiling in traffic stops, the state in 2005 required that every law enforcement agency report the race and ethnicity of those cited for seat-belt violations each year. In 2009, the law was amended to allow law enforcement agencies to stop motorists solely for seat-belt violations. After analyzing the annual data Florida police have reported, the ACLU said its findings "suggest that biased policing impacts seat-belt enforcement." In 2014, black people made up only 13.5 percent of the estimated Florida resident driver population but made up 21.96 percent of recipients of all seat-belt citations reported to state authorities, the report said.

In Palm Beach County, the disparity was actually worse: In 2014, black motorists were cited for seat-belt violations three times as often as whites. Black motorists in Broward were cited 1.9 times as often in 2011.

The ACLU also found that Miami-Dade and Tampa police have neglected to report their seat-belt citation data entirely. The report said the existing law was, in essence, toothless, as agencies that do not file yearly demographic reports cannot currently be penalized.

"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," Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, said in a statement. "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, which have failed to report seatbelt citation data to state authorities in violation of the Florida Safety Belt Law, should promptly do so."

The report comes as no surprise to New Times: In 2013, this paper found massive racial disparities in the way bicycle citations were being handed out in Broward County:
If you're black in Fort Lauderdale, a bike ride might be the easiest way to land a run-in with police. A seemingly benign city law requiring registration of bicycles is — in practice — almost as racist as the NYPD's "stop and frisk" tactics. Of the nearly 460 citations handed out in the past three years in Fort Lauderdale, 86 percent went to African-Americans. Almost none were handed out in white neighborhoods east of Federal Highway. Indeed, more bikes are registered to blacks than to whites — 63 percent to 37 percent.

Critics see a pattern of racial profiling in those stats. They claim cops are stopping blacks on the pretense of doing a bike registration check and then using that to look for other crimes.

"That is selective enforcement and racial profiling," says Broward County Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. "It is illegal, it is unconstitutional, and it is also immoral."

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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli