Florida Cops Give Black and Hispanic Drivers Harsher Speeding Tickets

Florida Cops Give Black and Hispanic Drivers Harsher Speeding Tickets
Photo by Walter / Flickr
In Florida, speeding tickets cost a heck of a lot more if you're driving more than 10 mph over the speed limit. As anyone who's ever been pulled over knows, the interaction with an officer can sometimes resemble a negotiation: If you play your cards right, you could get off with a warning or perhaps a cheaper ticket for, ahem, getting caught driving exactly 79 mph on the highway instead of 80.

Turns out a Princeton University study released in July shows that "playing your cards right" in Florida mostly means being white.

According to two Princeton researchers, Florida Highway Patrol officers have significant personal leeway to decide how fast you were caught going above the limit and often choose to give people 9 mph fines instead of crossing that 10 mph threshold. (Specific fines vary by county.) According to the researchers, cops tend to give these discounted tickets to white people much more often than people of color.

"Using data from the Florida Highway Patrol, we find evidence of significant bunching in ticketed speeds below a jump in punishment for all drivers but significantly more for whites than for blacks and Hispanics," the two scientists wrote.
The researchers set up their study because speeding fines are the single most common form of interaction between cops and civilians. Black and hispanic drivers are statistically pulled over more often than whites, so the study aims to examine whether this is due to officer bias or whether people of color actually commit more traffic violations, which conservatives and pro-police sources often claim.

"A central question in research on the criminal justice system is whether the disparate outcomes of minorities are due to discrimination on the part of criminal justice agents or instead reflect underlying differences in criminality across racial groups," the study says.

After developing statistical models, the researchers confirmed police bias is to blame in Florida.

Justice-reform advocates have long noted that a small number of cops tend to generate most complaints, and the Princeton researchers found similar results here: According to the data, the racial disparities can be tied to a small subset of biased cops who both pull over a higher share of drivers of color and issue them higher fines. The study estimates that roughly 24 percent of FHP officers displayed some level of bias toward black drivers and 25 percent displayed bias toward Hispanics.

A table appended to the study shows the large spikes for 9 mph speeding tickets — but white drivers receive a much higher number than black and hispanic ones:
click to enlarge GONCALVES/MELLO
Of course, it's possible white drivers are just really good at driving 9 mph over the speed limit, but anyone who's ever been behind the wheel of a car knows that's a nearly impossible feat to pull off. Likewise, the study's authors controlled for any sort of speed differences between racial groups and found that the tested speeds for drivers of color dropped to average levels when more lenient cops were the ones pulling people over.

The study also tested how useful it would be to fire biased officers and replace them with new cops, especially officers of color — but the researchers actually found that, overall, changing policies to encourage cops to give more lenient speeding fines actually worked better.

The new study backs up a growing pile of research that shows that even in situations where people of color are accused of the exact same crimes as whites, officers in Florida react with harsher penalties and increased force. A 2013 New Times Broward-Palm Beach investigation showed that Fort Lauderdale Police had weaponized a seemingly benign bike-registration law in order to harass black residents. From 2010 to 2013, the city cited 460 people for failing to register their bikes, and 86 percent of the violators were black. When the Broward County Public Defender's Office mapped out where the fines were issued, they found that cops were almost exclusively handing out tickets in black neighborhoods and ignoring white ones.

Likewise, a landmark investigation from the Tampa Bay Times in April showed that black Floridians are eight times likelier than whites to be shot by police.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.