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Jacksonville City Council President and Local Public Defender Call for Suspension of Pedestrian Ticket Writing

A legal bulletin by the Jacksonville state attorney supports the finding that sheriff’s officers have been issuing hundreds of tickets in error, a disproportionate number of them to blacks.

This story was co-published with the Florida Times-Union.

The Jacksonville City Council president and other local lawmakers have called for suspending the issuing of pedestrian tickets in the wake of a state attorney’s office bulletin, the substance of which suggests that hundreds of tickets had been issued in error in recent years.

Jacksonville Assistant State Attorney Andrew Kantor on Tuesday issued a bulletin to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detailing the proper enforcement of Florida’s pedestrian statutes — a document that supports a recent Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showing police have been issuing certain crosswalk violations in error, ticketing hundreds of pedestrians for failing to cross at formal intersections even when no such option was readily available.

“I’d like to make sure that we are enforcing the laws appropriately,” City Council President Anna Brosche said shortly after being made aware of the state attorney’s bulletin. “I do support a pause to make sure that everything is being enforced that should be.”

The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis published late last year found that more than 300 tickets over the last five years for pedestrians crossing streets outside a crosswalk resulted from mistaken interpretations of the applicable statute — errors that resulted in unwarranted fines and suspensions of people’s driver’s licenses.

While the statute bars pedestrians from crossing streets outside formal crosswalks when they are “between adjacent intersections at which traffic control signals are in operation,” officers nonetheless issued scores of tickets to people who had no reasonable access to such intersections. In short, people were being punished for failing to avail themselves of safety features that weren’t easily accessible.

During the Times-Union and ProPublica’s reporting on the tickets last fall, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said it would seek guidance on pedestrian statute enforcement from the local state attorney. Kantor’s bulletin was his answer to the sheriff’s request. The office did not examine the tickets identified by the Times-Union and ProPublica, and the bulletin does not refer to the Times-Union/ProPublica findings.

It is unclear what, if any, steps Sheriff Mike Williams will now take. In an interview Thursday evening, Patrick Ivey, the sheriff’s office second in command, maintained that the state attorney’s position was not a legally binding opinion. Ivey added that the state attorney’s review would not retroactively apply to tickets already issued by sheriff’s officers.

Brosche’s call to temporarily halt all pedestrian ticket writing echoed similar calls by several other council members, as well as the Jacksonville public defender.

“I applaud the sheriff for seeking guidance from the State Attorney’s Office so that we can clarify the rights and responsibilities of motorists and pedestrians, not only for those charged with enforcement, but also for pedestrians and motorists themselves,” said Lori Boyer, a senior council member who has led a variety of efforts aimed at improving Jacksonville pedestrian safety record. “This guidance now gives us an opportunity to correctly educate everyone in our City about the proper use of our roadways. It is a big step in the right direction.”

Of the 17 other City Council members, six said they are in favor of suspending pedestrian ticketing. Another five said they needed to review the state attorney’s legal bulletin, which Boyer’s office sent to all members.  The remaining either couldn’t be reached or said they would need time to review the matter.

Sheriff Mike Williams speaks at a meeting with reporters about enforcement of pedestrian laws in Jacksonville on Nov. 8, 2017. (Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union)

A spokesperson for Mayor Lenny Curry said the mayor had not seen the state attorney’s bulletin.

“While we welcome the opportunity to review the State Attorney’s report, please know that the mayor relies on Sheriff Williams, his team, and the State Attorney’s office for enforcement and prosecution decisions,” said the spokesperson, Tia Ford. Ford did not say whether the mayor supported the idea of suspending ticketing temporarily.

Eboni Dekine, who had her driver’s license suspended after she failed to pay the fine for one of the erroneous citations in 2016, said people such as her who didn’t pay the fines should have their records cleared and those who did pay the fines should have their money returned.

“I’m glad that they were able to admit it and hope they do the right thing,” Dekine, a mother of two who is still without her license, said in an interview Thursday.

The Times-Union and ProPublica have identified 132 instances in which erroneous tickets led to driver’s license suspensions.

The flawed crosswalk tickets are not limited to Jacksonville, according to a Times-Union-ProPublica review of pedestrian tickets statewide. The Times-Union and ProPublica reviewed more than 2,600 such tickets throughout the state, and determined that at least 60 percent of them were given in error. Law enforcement agencies in Broward, Dade, Hillsborough and Orange counties all issued erroneous tickets to pedestrians.

Billy Hattaway, considered by many to be the state’s top expert on pedestrian safety and enforcement, was not surprised by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s confusion when asked by reporters last year. He said there is widespread lack of understanding about the statutes statewide — among officers, citizens and legislators. He said many of the pedestrian statutes need to be rewritten.

The Times-Union/ProPublica examination of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville found that the sheriff’s office issued hundreds a year, a disproportionate number of them going to blacks. Indeed, all categories of pedestrian tickets — typically costing $65, and given for jaywalking, walking on the wrong side of the road, crossing the street at other than a right angle, and other violations — were disproportionately issued to blacks, almost all of them in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In the last five years, blacks received 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in and around Jacksonville, while only accounting for 29 percent of the population.

The crosswalk statute accounts for more tickets in Duval County than any other. Of the more than 300 bad tickets issued for crosswalk violations, 48 percent of them went to blacks.

Williams has maintained that his office’s enforcement of pedestrian statutes does not target blacks. His office has insisted that blacks have simply violated the statutes in greater numbers than others. But Williams’ office said it would not discuss the Times-Union/ProPublica findings in greater detail until the state attorney had done his review. His office added that anyone who felkt they were issued a ticket in error could contest the matter in court.

The analysis by the Times-Union and ProPublica sparked upset among a number of local legislators and civil rights leaders. There have been calls to suspend the issuing of pedestrian tickets and some moves toward enacting legislation to limit the impact of such tickets on recipients’ driver’s licenses. One meeting of the city council late last year was consumed by angry testimony about the ticketing effort.

The sheriff’s office has said the ticketing is designed to protect lives in a city that is notoriously unsafe for pedestrians. Yet the Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showed there was no great correlation between where tickets were being written and where pedestrian deaths were occurring.

Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition, a community advocacy group, seemed grateful for the state attorney’s interpretation, but also repeated his call for a halt to ticketing.

“The Northside Coalition is renewing its call for the Sheriff to impose a moratorium on the writing of pedestrian tickets,” Frazier said in a statement. He added, “We are now asking the Mayor and the City Council to hold the sheriff accountable. The sheriff should be called before the council to explain why he is still allowing the civil rights of black residents to be violated.”

Jacksonville’s public defender, Charlie Cofer, said he welcomed the legal review by the state attorney’s office, saying it was consistent with his interpretation of the law, which he first voiced in November. Cofer said he, too, now believes that the sheriff’s office should stop writing pedestrian tickets and pause to examine the effects of the enforcement on the city’s more marginalized communities.

Cofer said the disproportionate ticketing in poorer neighborhoods “creates a perception within that community that they are being treated differently by law enforcement.”  

“That is something I think that law enforcement has to consider,” Cofer said. “There are other collateral consequences of using statutes like this.”

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Topher Sanders

Topher Sanders is a reporter at ProPublica covering race, inequality and the justice system.

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