Not long after you pass your driving test and receive your first Florida driver’s license, traffic stops become a part of life. Whether you’re pegged for running a stop sign or become involved in a car accident, you will interact with a police officer sooner or later. Routine traffic stops tend to be predictable, starting with a reason for why you were stopped and ending in a warning or citation. Still, traffic stops can potentially be dangerous for drivers and police officers alike.
Deadly Traffic Stops That Made Headlines in Florida
A quick search for traffic stops in Florida can turn up several headlines where at least one person was killed.
In Deltona, on May 12, 2020, Florida deputies fatally shot an armed man after he fled a traffic stop. Four deputies fired at the 37-year old outside his home after he pointed a rifle at them. The deputies used a tire deflation device while in pursuit to flatten one of the driver’s truck tires. The suspect kept driving and stopped at his house. After surrounding the truck with their cop cars, deputies fired at least 20 shots at the runaway driver. Not long before the incident, Daytona Beach police had arrested the man on a weapons charge.
In January 2020, in St. Petersburg, a Clearwater police officer attempted to stop a vehicle for a traffic violation, but the driver didn’t stop. The police officer didn’t chase him. A few minutes later, a Largo police officer saw the car and attempted another traffic stop. Again, the driver didn’t stop, and the police officer didn’t pursue him.
Investigators learned that the car was registered to someone who lived in St. Petersburg. A deputy parked an unmarked car outside the home. Then, a man walked out and approached the car and looked through the windshield. The deputy identified himself. Moments later, the man returned to the house and exited with another man. The two men pointed guns at the deputy in the unmarked car. The deputy exited his vehicle as he saw them approach with guns, then he fired his weapon at them. Sheriff’s officials reported that both men appeared to have fired at the deputy, who was not injured. However, one of the two men who fled was killed.
A similar incident happened in Tampa in April 2020, when police officers fatally shot a man who fired at them during a traffic stop late at night. Officers stopped a white sedan at around 11:30 pm. The driver, a 26-year-old male, exited the vehicle and began shooting at the officers. The officers returned fire, killing him. The identified vehicle had been involved in a shooting in a nearby neighborhood days earlier.
There are seemingly countless stories of dangerous altercations between officers and drivers at traffic stops; however, a recurring theme is that, in the majority of these cases, the officers use their weapons as a last resort to protect their own lives.
Why are Traffic Stops So Dangerous for Police Officers?
Routine traffic stops are part of a policeman’s everyday job, but they can be a particularly dangerous aspect of their profession. Police officers don’t know the people they are pulling over to the roadside, even if they have a chance to check their license plates beforehand. They don’t know if the driver has weapons or may have just fled the scene of a crime.
Police officers check license plates to receive information about the vehicle and the driver they’re about to engage with. They can learn who the car is registered to and whether the driver has a valid license. The police officer may assume that the registered vehicle owner is the person driving the car, and may stop the driver if the license plate check reveals a suspended license. This limited information cannot inform the officer whether the traffic stop will threaten his life.
Many drivers are generally law-abiding citizens who had a lapse of judgment when violating a traffic law, but violent criminals also break the rules when driving. While police are on the side of the road approaching an unknown car, they are at risk of being struck by oncoming traffic. Once they approach the driver, they may risk their lives if the driver has an accessible weapon nearby but out of sight. If the driver becomes agitated or argumentative, a routine traffic stop may escalate into a deadly encounter.
Are Traffic Stops Dangerous for Drivers?
Studies have revealed that racial bias may play a role when police officers decide to conduct traffic stops. Infamous incidents of police brutality during regular traffic stops — like the Philando Castile case — are ingrained in people’s minds. Many drivers may reasonably believe their lives are at risk at a traffic stop, especially if they’re people of color.
The Stanford Open Policing Project reviewed almost 100 million traffic stops from 2011-2017 across 21 state patrol agencies, and results showed that police stopped and searched black and Latino drivers on the basis of less evidence than used in stopping white drivers. The study did not conclude whether officers knowingly engaged in racial discrimination; instead, it inferred that race is a factor when conducting traffic stops around the country.
Fight Your Traffic Citation or Suspended License in West Palm Beach
Although traffic stops can sometimes be threatening for law enforcement officers, tens of thousands of stops are conducted each year, often for minor violations. You can protect your driving privileges with the help of an experienced West Palm Beach traffic lawyer if you were stopped for a minor traffic offense or a suspended license.
Attorney Brian P. Gabriel has challenged countless traffic tickets throughout his career as a reliable and dependable criminal defense lawyer. With a free consultation, you can start to learn how to best defend your actions in traffic court.
Call (561) 622-5575 or complete our contact form.