A Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy was heading east on Interstate 4 in his red Dodge Charger on a brilliantly sunny afternoon in Florida when he saw him: A young driver behind the wheel of a Jeep texting on his phone.
The deputy, Donald Hess, didn’t hit his lights and siren right away. He watched over more than a mile while he pulled around both sides of the Jeep, he said, as the driver kept texting before he pulled him over on the I-4 shoulder. When the driver rolled down his window, the deputy waved away a cloud of smoke.
“How much weed have you all been smoking?” the deputy said in dialogue captured on police body camera video. “The reason I stopped you is for you using your texting while you’re driving.” Hess mimicked texting with his left thumb.
That roadside encounter, in November, was the exception rather than the rule when it comes to enforcing a new Florida law against texting and driving. With a flourish, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a new law in 2019 making texting while driving a primary traffic offense in Florida, with a $30 fine for a first offense that routinely climbs to over $100. “It’ll make our roads safer,” DeSantis said.
But the new law against texting is rarely enforced, according to official state figures. Florida also has failed its requirements under the law to track comprehensively how many drivers are ticketed statewide – and whether police are targeting minorities. Those in charge of writing tickets also complained that the young law has too many loopholes.
Florida’s census of texting violations, published earlier this year, is missing tickets entirely from more than 20 of the state’s 67 sheriff’s departments and at least 56 of 155 municipal police departments. The state sent the official report, anyway, to the governor, Senate president and House speaker. The report also contained at least one major error – discovered after the fact by a news reporter – that overcounted texting tickets by hundreds.
Broward County, one of Florida’s most populated, did not submit any numbers to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, as required annually under the law, until a reporter asked why its figures were missing. It turned out that deputies in Broward, where nearly 2 million people live, ticketed only 18 drivers for texting.
In areas where law enforcement agencies submitted data, the numbers also showed that police aren’t aggressively enforcing the anti-texting law.
Last year – the first year when drivers could be ticketed – officers, deputies, troopers and others wrote only 3,410 such citations among Florida’s more than 15 million licensed drivers, according to official state figures. The Florida Highway Patrol accounted for nearly one-third of the tickets.
In a typical year, authorities statewide issued more tickets for carpool lane violations or failing to use turn signals. In 2019, the latest figures available, Florida recorded more than 56,000 crashes and nearly 300 deaths blamed on distracted driving, which includes texting.
In Miami-Dade County, with an estimated 2 million drivers, police wrote 295 texting tickets, or about six each week. Palm Beach County deputies gave out 38. The sheriff’s office in Orange County, which includes Orlando, reported 114. The Orlando Police Department added 12 more there. In the Keys, Monroe County deputies wrote 68 texting tickets.
In Alachua County, home to the state’s flagship University of Florida with more than 50,000 students who live on their phones, campus police issued zero citations for texting behind the wheel. Likewise, police at Florida State gave no such tickets.
The sheriff’s office in Alachua County also failed to provide its figures to the state: A spokesman, Sgt. Frank Kinsey, later said it gave out six tickets.
In one case, deputy Aaron Brami ticketed Trevyne Willis, 31, of Newberry in June after watching her texting as she slowed for a traffic light. “When I’m looking at you, and you’re looking down, texting,” Brami said, according to body camera footage. “is that safe?”
“I understand, officer, I’m so sorry,” Willis said. “No, sir.”
Willis was assessed a $109 fine but never paid it, according to court records. Her license was suspended, and the case was turned over to collections in November.
Six Florida counties – Baker, DeSoto, Lafayette, Levy, Nassau, Suwannee and Union – reported zero texting tickets last year, the state said. More than 100 law enforcement agencies ticketed fewer than 10 drivers, and at least 30 municipal police departments wrote no tickets for texting while driving.
The state report contained at least one serious mistake: It included 253 tickets from St. Johns County along Florida’s eastern coast, which includes St. Augustine. That was nearly as many tickets as in Miami-Dade County, with 10 times more residents. Actually, the county only wrote 17 texting tickets, said Scott Beaver, its director of patrol.
That corrected total brought the statewide count to 3,174.
That mix-up occurred when the sheriff’s office mistakenly submitted totals for expired registrations, not texting violations. Records supervisor Racheal Moore said the county was correcting its report and notified the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. The county’s error was discovered during the reporting for this news article.
A key provision in the new law requires authorities to record the race and ethnicity of each driver ticketed for the report sent annually to the governor and legislative leaders.
The lack of accounting from so many jurisdictions makes it impossible to determine reliably whether minorities were targeted under the law: Florida said police ticketed 469 Black drivers, or about 14 percent of total tickets, and 688 Hispanic drivers, or about 20 percent of tickets. It categorized the race of 530 drivers last year as “unknown.”
In Florida, Black residents make up about 17 percent of the state’s population, and Hispanic residents make up about 26 percent.
A former state prosecutor and deputy director of the Florida American Civil Liberties Union, Melba Pearson, fought for the new law to include race and ethnicity reporting requirements. Now, she said, she worried that some police agencies were deliberately withholding figures that might show minorities being targeted.
“Our government needs to be accountable to the people that they serve, and accurate data is the way to do that,” said Pearson, now director of policy and programs at Florida International University’s Center for the Administration of Justice.
Using ticket data from 2014, the Florida ACLU reported in 2016 that Black motorists were nearly twice as often pulled over for seatbelt violations statewide and up to four times as often in certain counties.
In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, sheriff’s deputies ticketed 44 drivers, including six Black drivers. That included the November stop along I-4. The driver, Antonio Sims Jr., 25, of Tampa, told the deputy he was using the GPS app on his phone. Sims is Black, and Hess is white.
“I came on this side and watched you doing something with your phone, I went around you on the other side and watched you for over a mile, so that classifies as texting,” the deputy said. “I’ll give you like a quick jot but I went all the way around you and watched you continue to do it the whole way.”
Hess also instructed Sims: “Bro, don’t be smoking so much weed in the car, man, it smells so strong,” he said. “That’s how you go to jail, all right?” He did not ask to search Sims’ Jeep or otherwise formally accuse him of a drug violation.
Sims never paid his $113 texting fine, and his license was suspended in January, according to court records. He did not respond to multiple phone calls, voicemails and text messages over more than a week, or efforts to contact him through his family in Illinois.
Under Florida’s new law, drivers can make phone calls, check weather or traffic alerts and use phones for navigation – except in a school or construction zone, which are “hands free” spaces, where any phone activity behind the wheel is prohibited.
Drivers can also text while their car is stationary, like at a stoplight. Officers can ticket people only when their car is in motion and they have a reasonable belief the driver is texting. Drivers are not required to allow officers to look on their phone without a search warrant.
Those provisions make the texting law difficult to enforce, said Kinsey, the Alachua County sheriff’s sergeant.
“We’ve all seen it as citizens,” he said. “But people are on their best behavior when there’s a marked patrol car around.”
The 2019 law was pioneered by Democratic Rep. Emily Slosberg of Delray Beach and Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa. When the governor signed it, Florida joined 47 other states and the District of Columbia in enforcing some sort of texting behind the wheel ban.
Slosberg is trying to expand the law to ban all cell phone use while driving, not just texting. But the bill hasn’t been subject to a hearing or vote. A similar effort failed last year.
She said the state’s official report on texting enforcement shows the current law is unenforceable.
“This is something that is necessary,” Slosberg said. Under her proposal, Florida would join at least 15 other states banning all phone use while driving.
For Slosberg, who had proposed anti-distracted driving legislation since 2017, the fight is personal. She was in a deadly Palm Beach car accident over 20 years ago that killed her 14-year-old twin sister, Dori, and four other teenagers. The crash, which Slosberg said still haunts her, is a force behind her efforts.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at ccann(at)freshtakeflorida.com