A couple hundred drivers found out the hard way that local police are serious about enforcing the state's "move over" law.
Officers from Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach handed out 200 tickets this month to drivers who failed to pull over or slow down for a police car parked on the side of 49th Street N with its lights flashing.
Officers also handed out 26 warnings during the traffic sting. One went to Pinellas Park council member Rick Butler, who, the city acknowledges, avoided the $111 ticket because of his position.
Officers have discretion when deciding whom to ticket and whom to warn, especially when the infraction is civil and not criminal, Pinellas Park police spokesman Sandy Forseth said. Many times, Forseth said, the decision whether to ticket hangs on the facts. In this case, the decider was Butler's elected position.
"He did not write a ticket because he's a city councilman," Forseth said. "Because he was a city councilman, he used discretion in not writing the ticket."
Butler said, "That's not even worth responding to. There were a lot of people who got warnings that day."
The sting, at 49th Street and 90th Avenue N, came a couple of weeks after officers put up signs reminding drivers of the state's move-over law. Those signs were still in place during the sting, Forseth said.
Police parked two city cars, one with its lights flashing, at the side of the road and waited from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. to see who failed to pull over or slow down. In addition to the 226 tickets and warnings, they handed out two tickets for speeding, 33 for seat belt violations, six other moving violations, seven for nonmoving violations, such as outdated tags, and one for ignoring a stop sign. They also arrested two drivers.
Butler, who was driving his new Smart Car, said Tuesday that he saw the police car along the road with its flashing lights but did not think about slowing down or moving over because he did not see an officer.
"I'm thinking, 'My God. I wonder if they're fighting in the back of the yard.' ... I was mostly thinking a cop was getting his a-- kicked."
As he passed the car, Butler saw a cluster of police ahead.
"I'm thinking they must have caught him because I see all those cops," he said. Officers signaled him to pull over and asked, "Do you know why we pulled you over?"
Butler explained that he had not been thinking about the move-over law, but about the possibility that "someone's in a fight."
Sgt. Tracey Schofield issued the warning.
Florida's so-called Move Over Act was passed during the 2002 legislative session to help protect police officers and emergency workers who have to get out of their vehicles in high-traffic areas.
The need was clear, according to the Florida Highway Patrol, which says that from 1996 to 2000, drivers crashed into working law enforcement vehicles that were stopped or parked along Florida roads 1,793 times. Five died and 419 were injured as a result of those crashes.
Another part of the same statute addresses how drivers should behave when emergency vehicles are moving (see accompanying box).
Butler said that he's a believer now and is not likely to forget the new law. Last weekend, he was driving along a four-lane road and saw one police officer's car in the road and another's by the side of the road. He slowed down.
"I was okay with it," Butler said, "but the 15 people behind me beeping their horns, they weren't too cool with that."