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Agencies vary on speeding doctrines

On the same stretch of Northcliffe Boulevard in Spring Hill, on the same day _ Jan. 25, 1998 _ one sheriff's deputy, William Martinez, pulled over two drivers.

One, Ronald Gandolfini, was going 10 mph over the speed limit. The other, Anthony Maldonado, was going 23 mph over the limit.

While Gandolfini got a speeding ticket, Maldonado drove away with only a written warning.

So who got the break?

The answer is both, actually. Because while Gandolfini admitted he was going 10 mph over the speed limit, Deputy Martinez only cited him for going 9 mph over the limit, saving him $75.

Nearly 60 percent of the speeding tickets issued by Hernando County sheriff's deputies over the past five years _ including the one issued to Gandolfini _ were written for going 9 mph over the limit. Deputies say it's one way they cut speeders a break.

Radar technology has advanced to the point where deputies can pinpoint the exact speed of a car driving toward them in the opposite direction _ even pick it out of a crowd of cars.

But a computer analysis by the Times of the approximately 118,000 traffic tickets written in Hernando County over the last five years shows policing speeders isn't such an exact science. Officers exercise a good deal of discretion in meting out roadside justice.

"I guess he did give me a break," Gandolfini said of his $48 ticket.

But it bothers him that others who were driving faster got a warning. "I'm not favorable to some people getting away with it and some people don't," he said.

Maybe it's that he has long hair, mused Gandolfini, 34, of Spring Hill. Or that the car he was driving, a Mustang GT, is louder than the factory model. "Maybe," he said, "they give the break to an old person driving a Crown Victoria." (Maldonado, also of Spring Hill, is 22 and drives a Volkswagen. In July, he received another warning after a deputy clocked him going 58 mph in a 45 mph zone.)

Gandolfini is right about younger people getting the bulk of the speeding tickets. Nineteen-year-olds got more tickets than any other age. But Fords were written more tickets than any other make. (Information on which models are ticketed most frequently was not available.)

Other trends emerged from the analysis, which included tickets written by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, the Florida Highway Patrol and the Brooksville Police Department. For example, men were ticketed twice as often as women. Of the more than 25,000 speeding tickets written, 69 percent were written to men. But whether that translates to bias is unclear.

If the argument is that male officers are less inclined to write tickets to women and vice versa, the numbers do not support it. An analysis of tickets written by sheriff's deputies showed male deputies wrote 70 percent of their tickets to men; female deputies wrote 72 percent to men.

While law enforcement officials noted such factors as a higher percentage of males on the roads and a generally more aggressive driving style, John Doherty, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said not to discount the "batting-the-eyelashes" factor. "Cops are human," said Doherty, a 20-year police veteran.

What about race? A review of speeding tickets written over the past five years shows white people got 95 percent of the speeding tickets; black people, 5 percent. That's in line with the county's racial breakdown.

Is there a leniency toward local residents? A comparison of warnings versus tickets written by the Sheriff's Office doesn't suggest it. About 72 percent of those ticketed by the sheriff's deputies were county residents. The same percentage of county residents was issued warnings.

A review of ticket writing shows some other trends in speed enforcement _ for instance, few tickets are written for people speeding less than 9 mph over the posted limit _ but the decisions about who gets a ticket, a downgraded ticket or a warning is a matter of individual officer discretion. And while that can vary from officer to officer, there appear to be different philosophies among law enforcement agencies.

When it comes to getting a break, the biggest factor may depend on whether it's a local or state police officer who emerges from the flashing lights behind your car.

If it's a sheriff's deputy, the data suggests you are a lot more likely to get some kind of a break than if it's a trooper with the Florida Highway Patrol.

Aside from downgrading a large percentage of speeders to 9 mph over the limit, sheriff's deputies had an even more popular way of cutting people a break. Instead of writing a motorist a speeding ticket, deputies were twice as likely to issue a ticket for "disregarding a traffic device" _ in this case a speed-limit sign. The traffic-device violation carries a smaller fine and, if the driver was going at least 16 mph over the limit, one less point against his or her driver's license. Sheriff's deputies said they can achieve their goal of modifying bad driving habits just as well with the downgraded tickets as with the more expensive ones.

State troopers shun both practices. Brooksville police fall somewhere between the two. Brooksville officers often downgrade the speed to 9 mph, and they write speeders disregarding-traffic-sign/device tickets, but not nearly to the extent of sheriff's deputies.

The criteria for deciding who gets a break, and what type, vary. Deputies interviewed by the Times listed such factors as a driver's attitude, traffic congestion, whether it's a school or work zone and the outrageousness of speeding.

For Martinez, "a person's attitude plays a large part in who gets a citation."

If you insist on seeing the radar machine when Martinez has clocked you at 10 mph over the limit, you're not likely to get off with a warning.

Like Martinez, Deputy Mike Glatfelter said a driver's courtesy and politeness play into the equation.

"If I get to the window and hear a bunch of obscenities, I'll be less likely to give that person a break," Glatfelter said. "If they're that disrespectful to me, then they won't likely follow the laws of the road."

He also routinely lowers the speed on a ticket to give the driver a break, especially around 10 mph and 15 mph over the limit, where the fines and points rise dramatically. Glatfelter said he writes speeders "disregarding a traffic device" tickets to help lower their fines.

While Deputy Alan Jernigan writes those, too, he won't lower the speed on tickets.

"It's just not something I do," Jernigan said. "I'm more comfortable giving them a break some other way."

Nor does courtesy play a role in his decision, Jernigan said. He knows what ticket he will write before he even gets out of his cruiser.

His threshold for writing a speeding ticket is about 12 mph over the limit, he said. It's a number that changes depending on the area (such as whether it's a school zone) and the driving conditions.

Martinez, who now works in the sheriff's canine unit, said, "Every deputy's got to use their own discretion. Every deputy is different. Not everybody writes the same. That's just the way it is."

While deputies' philosophies may differ, Sgt. Lanny Corlew said, they are guided by a prevailing goal: to make drivers aware of the dangers on the road.

"We are not out there to punish," Corlew said. "We want to educate and make people better drivers."

There's another reason many officers downgrade tickets, one that's not tied to safety or a warm heart, said Doherty of Marist College. Officers know that if they downgrade a ticket, a driver is much less likely to challenge it in court. And, he said, with so little money from fines going to local coffers, conviction records are more important than fines.

A person who gets a ticket for going 9 mph over the limit probably will not take a day off work to fight a ticket. But someone ticketed for 20 mph over might, because in addition to carrying a much higher fine, it adds more points against one's license, which can drive up insurance rates.

That type of discretionary traffic enforcement happens because that's what the public wants, Doherty said.

"It's all part of this community policing of the '90s," Doherty said. "We don't want robo-cops."

Besides, he said, "if cops were to write up every motorist who violated the law, the courts would grind to a halt."

Community policing is not the hallmark of the Florida Highway Patrol, and it's shown by that department's no-nonsense ticket-writing approach. Troopers do not downgrade the speed, nor do they write "disregarding a traffic device" citations to speeders.

"For me to arbitrarily drop the speed, it would be improper for me to do that," said Lt. Gregory LaMont of the highway patrol in Brooksville. "It would be improper if I clocked someone going 15 mph over the limit and wrote them a ticket for 9 mph over. It's not truthful."

And, he reminded, in court, officers have to swear to tell "the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Nor does he write speeders tickets for disregarding a traffic sign.

"If I stop somebody for speeding, that's what I write them up for," LaMont said.

Lt. Mike Guzman, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol in the seven-county Tampa Bay area, said the highway patrol does not condone the practice of troopers who downgrade tickets.

"We're the enforcement agency," Guzman said. "We're not making deals on the side of the road about what they're going to do or not going to do."

Officers should know what ticket they are going to write before they approach the vehicle, he said. A driver's bad attitude should not influence a trooper's decision to issue a ticket, he said.

"If a trooper comes and tells me that (attitude was a factor), we're going to talk," Guzman said. "You're supposed to be a professional enforcement officer. That's not the way it works. There's nowhere in the law where it says it's okay to do that."

But there are breaks to be had, Guzman said, based on the perceived danger of a driver's speeding. For example, he said, speeding tailgaters aren't likely to get a break, while someone speeding on a barren road might.

"I don't think we can afford to live in a society where discretion is taken away," Guzman said. "I don't think the public would want that."

Most everyone speeds at one time or another, he said. "It's natural human behavior."

Sometimes people are headed to a legitimate emergency, or they just aren't paying attention.

"To write like a machine, that's not fair," Guzman said. "There's a human side to what happens out there."

How it was done

Three months ago, Times staff writers Graham Brink, Robert Farley and Amy Schatz began analyzing computerized records of the 212,798 traffic tickets written in Hernando County since 1988. They were helped by Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and technology specialist Debbie Wolfe.

The Times also created a database of all warning tickets written by Hernando County sheriff's deputies for the first six months of 1998.

In most of the stories published today and Monday, only data from 1993 through the first six months of 1998 were analyzed. The database included all types of traffic tickets, including speeding, parking and DUI. The accuracy of the numbers in the stories relies on the accuracy of the county's records. Data entries with obviously incorrect or incomplete information were excluded from the analysis.

To determine how often sheriff's deputies write tickets to other officers, the Times compared the names of those who received tickets against the Sheriff's Office's roster of sworn deputies, which included 158 patrol deputies, detectives, sergeants and their superiors. The roster did not include the half-dozen deputies who work undercover narcotics or those hired since August. Birth dates were used to double-check the findings.

The Times used a random sample of 300 names from the county's list of licensed drivers to determine the likelihood of any civilian getting a ticket. Of those 300 people, 134, or 45 percent, had received a ticket in the past 10 years compared with two, or 1.28 percent, of the deputies.

The Times used the Sheriff's Office's crash log to determine the number of on-duty crashes and who was at fault. If there was any question about a deputy's involvement in a traffic infraction or crash _ anything from errors in spelling, to incomplete reports _ the Times gave the Sheriff's Office the benefit of the doubt.