New Evidence of Racial Profiling Looks at Seat Belt Stops

racial-profling-carBy Nusrat Choudhury

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 — despite the fact that Black and white people in Florida use seat belts at closely comparable rates. 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 offenses three 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 often than white motorists by the Broward County Sheriff’s Office. (The 2014 statewide racial disparity was 1.9.)

These findings are a red flag. They suggest that law enforcement agencies across Florida are racially profiling Black people for seat belt enforcement.

Why? There is no state or national study that documents a difference in seat belt use between white and Black motorists in Florida that would justify the dramatic 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 Florida wore seat belts at closely comparable rates — 91.5 percent for whites and 85.8 percent for Blacks. These statistics dispel 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.

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.

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 all seat belt violations aren’t created equally in Florida.

Nusrat Choudhury is a Staff Attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program

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27 Comments

  1. Davis Progressive

    seat belt pullovers are a good metric because it’s a minor offense, no risk to others, and purely discretionary by the police.  i’m sure the usual suspects will argue that this isn’t profiling since blacks are more likely the drivers in high crime areas, but at some point that excuse wears thin.

    1. Sam

      “purely discretionary by the police”

      Why are some laws considered “discretionary”? It is either illegal or not. If they shouldn’t be enforced then take them off the books.

        1. Miwok

          Discretionary means they can decide in the field, or at any level, to prosecute?

          That is the problem, IMO, of the structure. EVERYONE knows some things are offenses NO MATTER WHAT, then there are Felonies that are “discretionary”? I think this is ridiculous as no one knows where the line is. Leaves the door open for bribery, nepotism, etc. Hopefully there is enough oversight that every incident is documented, but as I said, that is a hope. I know it probably never hits a paper.

          And the article mentions Sandra Bland. I thought the article was about Seat Belt Stops. Hers was not.

  2. Alan Miller

    This is a compelling article because it does site seat belt use in comparison to pullovers.  So many articles on racial profiling omit any data about differences in offenses made as a percentage of race, then wave their arms hoping you won’t notice.  This is well written and sites necessary stats and doesn’t go off on long tangents and use hyperbole.

  3. PhillipColeman

    To show a statistical disparity with enforcement of seat-belt laws a state-wide survey of compliance was cited.

    The article then “suggests” that there is a racial disparity in enforcement of this traffic violation. Compliance of seat-belt laws is generally consistent among races, yet enforcement patterns show a racial disparity towards persons of color. Seat-belt enforcement statistics was shown for three Florida counties.

    Apparently the researchers felt no necessity to survey the other 64 counties for possible racial disparity in seat-belt enforcement so that the two data bases were compatible. And the data collectors and analyzers did not include the racial break-down of the three counties. Wonder why.

      1. PhillipColeman

        That was the intent, Alan. Even we who have been around the block and should know better can be “taken for a ride,” with seat-belt attached.

        I did a quick statistical comparison of the Black population in those three counties and found that all have higher numbers of African Americans that the State average. No enforcement stats were mentioned in counties that were predominately White.

        Several Florida counties have African Americans were in much greater concentration than the State norm. Presuming they operate vehicles with seat belts, no numbers were tabulated for these counties to possible balance or negate the excitedly declared, “evidence.”

        When it comes to revealing pre-conceived bias, the ACLU commentaries have no equal in self-discovery.

        1. Barack Palin

          The numbers have so many holes in them that it makes this ACLU accusation useless.   It may be true that blacks are stopped statistically more for seat belt violations but the way the numbers were represented in this article just leaves me scratching my head.   The average reader will take the story as fact so the ACLU got their propaganda out anyway.

        2. Davis Progressive

          “The average reader will take the story as fact so the ACLU got their propaganda out anyway”

          or they’ll be like you and reject outright on any flimsy pretense other people can find.

  4. tribeUSA

    Re: ‘A 2014 study by the Florida Department of Transportation found that white and Black people in Florida wore seat belts at closely comparable rates — 91.5 percent for whites and 85.8 percent for Blacks.’

    Accepting the statistic in the quote above, then 8.5% of whites do not wear seat belts, and 14.2% of blacks do not wear seat belts–i.e., nearly twice the percentage of blacks as whites do not wear seat belts in Florida. (and how are these numbers determined, by the way?) Black lives matter–buckle up!

    Also, were most of the traffic stops not initially for seat-belt violations, but for other reasons (and the seat-belt violation was added when the cop, after pulling over the car and approaching the car on foot, noticed the driver was not belted?) This would complicate the statistics in the article above.

    1. Topcat

      Black lives matter–buckle up!

      Yes; Wouldn’t it be nice if the Black Lives Matter movement made a strong stance for encouraging everyone to wear their seat belts?

    2. Davis Progressive

      “were most of the traffic stops not initially for seat-belt violations”

      this is the key question.  the racially profiling complaint is that traffic stops are for minor offenses that are used as a “phishing” expedition to determine if there is a greater offense.  so the question is why was the traffic stop made?  was it because the person was not wearing their seatbelt or for another reason.

    3. Davis Progressive

      “Accepting the statistic in the quote above, then 8.5% of whites do not wear seat belts, and 14.2% of blacks do not wear seat belts–i.e., nearly twice the percentage of blacks as whites do not wear seat belts in Florida.”

      but the study found that blacks were four times more likely to get a ticket, so you still haven’t solved the puzzle.

  5. Tia Will

    Also, were most of the traffic stops not initially for seat-belt violations, but for other reasons”

    Now there is a good question for Phil. As a doc, I make a primary diagnosis and then secondary diagnoses so that one can determine from reading my notes what the major problem was and which were secondary or incidental factors. Are police reports organized in the same way ? If so, that question would be addressed.

    1. PhillipColeman

      The medical analogy follows police reporting–somewhat. Secondary medical issues can become acute if untreated. No such parallel is found in secondary criminal violations.

      In instances of traffic enforcement (staying on the point of the column), if only a citation is written it can be safely assumed that violation had primacy. It is quite common for a cited violator to actually have multiple violations, namely equipment violations. In the overwhelming number of instances, the violator is cited for one offense and given an oral warning on the others.

      Traffic stops can translate to formal police reports only, when the traffic stop escalates to a felony or misdemeanor. For example, a vehicle stop reveals stolen property visibly seen in the car. A police report is generated, the reason for the stop is detailed (to meet the probable-cause legal standard), and an arrest or Notice to Appear is performed for the theft. Rarely, is a traffic citation also issued, although a traffic citation could be issued.

       

       

  6. Tia Will

    BP

    The average reader will take the story as fact so the ACLU got their propaganda out anyway.”

    We have a point of agreement. Just exactly as undiscerning readers chose to accept the Daleiden propaganda without bothering to consider whether or not it was true or manufactured.

    This lack of accuracy however is having a markedly disparate effect. Congress is still using taxpayer money to attempt to defund Planned Parenthood through rigged “investigation” despite the clear lack of evidence of any wrong doing. I sincerely doubt that the ACLU claim is having anything like the same amount of harm to anyone.  If you can site as much disruption and harm by this study to any group of people, I will stand corrected.

    1. sisterhood

      Tia wrote: “Just exactly as undiscerning readers chose to accept the Daleiden propaganda without bothering to consider whether or not it was true or manufactured.”

      Touche!

  7. sisterhood

    BP wrote
    “The average reader will take the story as fact so the ACLU got their propaganda out anyway.”

    Therefore, Tia’s comment is very much ON topic , because the other reader brings up the scenario of people who accept things on face value… Tia is giving an example of that.

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