By Nusrat Choudhury, Staff Attorney, ACLU Racial Justice Program
Sam Dubose. Walter Scott. Sandra Bland. 2015 showed in terrible and vivid detail how even routine police traffic stops carry the risk of escalating to arrest or the use of force — even lethal force. Traffic stops are not simply innocuous encounters. They can be deadly, particularly for Black people.
When evidence suggests that certain communities are targeted for traffic stops because of their race or ethnicity, we need to take heed. Today the ACLU is releasing a report providing just that. “Racial Disparities in Florida Safety Belt Law Enforcement” is the first report to analyze publicly available seat belt citation data reported by law enforcement agencies across the state to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles in 2014 and 2011.
Take 2014, for instance. According to state data, law enforcement officers with 147 different agencies statewide collectively stopped and ticketed Black motorists for seat belt violations at a rate nearly double that of white motorists. The report also identifies specific agencies whose enforcement of seat belt requirements has resulted in racial disparities that exceeded or met the already large statewide disparities.
The numbers speak for themselves.
- Black motorists were stopped and cited for seat belt offenses four times more often than white motorists by the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office in 2011 — almost double the statewide racial disparity for that year.
- In 2014, Black motorists were stopped and cited for seat belt offensesthree times more often than white motorists by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, 2.8 times more often than white motorists by the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and 1.9 times more oftenthan white motorists by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. (The 2014 statewide racial disparity was 1.9.)
These findings are a red flag. They raise the distinct possibility that law enforcement agencies across Florida are racially profiling Black people for seat belt enforcement.
Why? No state or national study documents differences in seat belt non-use between white and Black motorists in Florida as dramatic as the racial disparities in seat belt citation rates identified in the report.
A 2014 study by the Florida Department of Transportation found that white and Black people in the study wore seat belts at closely comparable rates — 91.5 percent for whites and 85.8 percent for Blacks. These statistics call into question the argument that Black motorists in Florida were stopped and ticketed for seat belt offenses at nearly double the rate of whites in 2014 simply because they failed to obey seat belt requirements at higher rates.
The disproportionate stopping and ticketing of any racial or ethnic group for seat belt enforcement causes real harm. Communities that are targeted by police for low-level offenses — whether intentionally or not — feel unfairly stigmatized as criminals because of who they are and not what they have done. Seat belt tickets also carry fines that can burden people with debts they cannot afford to pay — a particular problem for Black people because of the well-documented racial wealth gap. And because even routine traffic stops can tragically escalate, communities that are disproportionately targeted for seat belt stops face a greater risk of harm simply because they are stopped more often. Finally, communities that are stopped and ticketed more often may view the agents of the criminal justice system as less legitimate, which hurts efforts to improve public safety.
In 2015, Walter Scott and Samuel Dubose were shot and killed by police officers in South Carolina and Cincinnati following traffic stops for minor traffic infractions (driving a car with a broken taillight and driving a car missing a front license plate, respectively). Also in 2015, Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View, Texas, for a minor traffic violation that escalated, leading to her arrest, jailing, and subsequent death. In 2014, Arthur Green Jr., a diabetic man, died in the custody of Tampa Police Department officers following a traffic stop in which he was handcuffed.
Florida law enforcement agencies and oversight authorities need to study the findings of our report and take measures to ensure that the Florida Safety Belt Law is enforced fairly and equally. Because when Florida officers tell Black motorists that they were pulled over for a seat belt violation, the last thing drivers should worry about is their skin color. State data, however, give Black motorists cause to believe that perhaps all seat belt violations aren’t created equally in Florida.
This post was updated to incorporate information from the amended report released on February 1, 2016. The amendments clarify our statements and do not alter the overall conclusions or recommendations of the report.
Although the 2014 study by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) reported differences in seat belt use (and therefore non-use) in white and Black people observed in the study, it did not estimate rates of seat belt use or non-use for white and Black resident motorists across Florida. Nevertheless, even if we ignore the problems in translating the study results to race differences at the state level, there is a less than 1 in 1,000 chance that the racial disparity in seat belt non-use of those observed in the study (1.67) accounts for the statewide racial disparity in seat belt citations seen here (1.85 to 1.9), much less the larger racial disparities in local practices identified in the report — for example, 2.83 to 3.10 (Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office), 3.88 to 4.22 (Escambia County Sheriff’s Office). This finding calls into question the argument that Black motorists were stopped and ticketed for seat belt offenses across Florida and by particular agencies at such high rates simply because they failed to obey seat belt requirements at higher rates.
As noted in pages 29-30 of the report, based on information available at this time, any differences in racial groups’ exposure to law enforcement cannot explain the observed racial disparities in citation rates. We are not aware of any information about where Black and white motorists in Florida drive, how those locations link to police deployments, or the total miles driven by each group, which could impact law enforcement exposure. Further, U.S. Census data on vehicles per person show that vehicle access was lower for Black motorists as compared to white motorists in Florida in 2014, which suggests that Black motorists drove fewer total miles than white motorists that year and that the observed statewide racial disparity in seat belt citation rates may be a low estimate.