Tickets drop sharply after sheriff scraps traffic unit

An Alachua County sheriff's deputy looks for speeders in a school zone on Southeast Williston Road in 2011.

Doug Finger/The Sun/File
Published: Sunday, August 11, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 10, 2013 at 7:51 p.m.

In the wake of December's Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell used her discretion to put resource deputies in more schools at the expense of her traffic unit.

Now, the number of traffic citations and DUI charges has dropped sharply, raising issues about safety on the streets.

The drop in tickets also will result in a loss of revenue for various programs funded by citations.

In a broader view, the actions by Darnell reflect the difficult choices that must be made with a limited budget.

They also illustrate the discretion Darnell has to prioritize the laws the agency will enforce — an issue raised by County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson, who wants Darnell to stop arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

“I know and anticipated that the numbers would go down because there is always a trade-off when you collapse a unit, and the traffic unit was doing some very productive work,” Darnell said. “You have to weigh it. To me the need to have deputies in school is partly safety, but it is also becoming role models and developing a relationship with our future adults at a very young age.”

In 2012, the Sheriff's Office issued 16,231 civil traffic citations, made 442 DUI arrests and wrote 1,907 criminal traffic citations for offenses including driving on a suspended license, according to data from the Alachua County Clerk of the Court.

From January to July of this year, the Sheriff's Office issued 2,793 civil traffic citations, made 153 DUI arrests and wrote 678 criminal traffic citations.

“Therefore, you can calculate that if the current trends hold, ASO will write about 11,443 fewer civil citations this year than last year and about 180 fewer DUIs,” Clerk Buddy Irby said in an email to The Sun with the requested data. “Also, they have written 678 other types of criminal citations. At this rate, they will write about 745 fewer other types.”

To try to estimate how much revenue that represents, Irby's office used an average fine of $194 — the cost of going 10 to 14 mph over the speed limit.

If all the projected 11,443 citations were paid, the revenue would total $2,219,942.

Irby said the $194 goes to about 25 different funds in state and local governments. Among them are the clerk's office, a radio communications fund, teen court and local law enforcement training.

Darnell said the primary reason the numbers are down is the disbanding of the unit. She added that any deputy can write a traffic ticket — and many are being written — but that the high cost of tickets might deter deputies from issuing them in some cases.

“I want them to focus on high-hazard driving. They have a great deal of discretion on whether to give a ticket or issue a warning,” Darnell said. “Candidly, part of the reason why some of the numbers have gone down is because fines are so high, and it is hard to write a $200, $300 or $500 ticket.”

ASO used to have a “motor unit” of five deputies and a sergeant. Their primary responsibility was enforcing the laws of the road, and they patrolled most recently on a fleet of Harley-Davidsons after making the switch from BMWs in 2008.

The unit started in the late 1980s, and in addition to enforcing traffic laws, the unit was responsible for accident reconstruction.

But after the Sandy Hook shootings, the public was calling for deputies in more schools, particularly elementary schools. Darnell obliged.

Through a reorganization that included collapsing an overlap shift and disbanding the traffic unit, she was able to put an additional 12 deputies on campuses.

The motorcycles are still used for honor guard activities, such as escorts for law enforcement funerals.

Several months ago, Hutchinson asked Darnell to stop making arrests for small amounts of marijuana, saying the misdemeanor crime is not worth the time and expense of arrests or the impact it has on those arrested.

Hutchinson said if anything, notices to appear in court or civil citations would be more appropriate than arrests.

Darnell countered that as long as marijuana is illegal, deputies cannot ignore it.

But by disbanding the traffic unit, Hutchinson said, Darnell is essentially choosing to not enforce a lot of traffic offenses.

“Police have discretion on the most important things to enforce, and she is making that decision,” Hutchinson said. “I would be concerned about safety on the roads. We have a lot of young, exuberant drivers, and it is important to have a police presence on the roads. Exactly what that level is is determined by the sheriff. It is important that she balance those needs for safety in the schools with safety on the roads.”

Darnell said traffic laws still are being enforced when deputies see offenders.

Gainesville Police Officer Jeff McAdams, president of the Gator Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, represents sheriff's deputies and said none have complained about disbanding the unit. McAdams added it is unusual for an agency the size of ASO not to have a unit. The Gainesville Police Department has a traffic unit.

University of Florida professor emeritus Frederick Shenkman, who worked in law enforcement prior to teaching criminology at UF, said discretion is the most difficult but interesting aspect of analyzing law enforcement.

At the street level, officers have enormous discretion on whether to ticket or arrest someone. A commanding officer might emphasize certain offenses to his or her unit at the expense of others. And at the top, the sheriff or police chief has to determine which programs exist and which don't along with setting the general tone of enforcement.

Money, public pressure and other factors determine discretionary decisions, Shenkman said.

“You cannot understand law enforcement without understanding discretion. That is the single theme that affects almost everything,” Shenkman said. “You can't make up the law, but you can decide where you put your resources, efforts and reward system. It affects who gets promoted, what is most important. They are discretionary judgments that affect the value system and priorities of the department.”

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