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Subjective ticket-writing follows distinct patterns

On the evening of Feb. 11, 1994, James Robert Taylor sped up as the car headlights behind him began looking uncomfortably close.

Wrong move, for the car following him belonged to a sheriff's deputy who minutes later pulled over Taylor, a 57-year-old Brooksville resident, and gave him a $57 speeding ticket.

The citation certainly wasn't the best birthday greeting Taylor ever received. Nor was it for the 80 or so other people who have gotten traffic tickets on their birthdays in the past five years. Officers may use discretion in how they award tickets, but that doesn't mean drivers who get pulled over on their birthdays get a free pass.

There are certain times of the year, however, when drivers have a better than average chance of avoiding a ticket, according to a computer analysis by the Times of about 118,000 traffic tickets issued in Hernando County during the past five years. On some major holidays, on certain weekend days and during months in the fall, drivers received fewer tickets than normal. And the data shows that ticket-writing, while highly subjective, often falls into definite patterns.

Although they would never say so to law enforcement officials, many people harbor the belief that officers write traffic tickets to fulfill a department quota.

But a look at the data does not support the quota theory. Drivers are just about as likely to get a ticket during the first week of the month as they are during the last week. Also, officers do not consistently write more tickets on any one day or period of the month.

"We certainly don't have quotas that (deputies) have to write so many tickets," said Hernando County Sheriff Thomas Mylander.

"That's illegal. We're supposed to be going by the law," said Lt. Mike Guzman, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol. "If there is a quota system, it's against the law and it's not something we'd condone."

While officers may not be filling any sort of quota, there certainly are times when they tend to write more tickets.

John W. Peel of Spring Hill was driving his Nissan through a construction zone near Ridge Manor in July 1997 when he was stopped by an FHP trooper.

"I didn't think it was speeding. You don't know where (the construction zone) starts or stops. We were probably only doing 40 or something," said Peel, who ended up with a $48 ticket for failure to wear a seat belt.

Perhaps Peel was just guilty of bad timing, for he was pulled over on a Friday, the day of the week speeding motorists are most likely to get caught in Hernando County. More traffic tickets have been written on Fridays during the past five years than on any other day of the week, according to the traffic-ticket data.

"On Fridays we get a lot of activity," said Mylander. A greater number of cars on the road and people rushing to get things done before the weekend could account for the increase, he speculated.

Generally, officers wrote fewer tickets on weekends than they did during the work week. Drivers received the fewest number of tickets on Sunday.

"There are days when there's no traffic enforcement going on," acknowledged Guzman, who said the highway patrol doesn't have enough money to hire the troopers needed to cover Hernando County. "On a rainy day, there's a likely chance that you'll find no traffic citations," since troopers will be dealing with traffic accidents, he said.

If Friday is a bad day of the week to speed or run a stop sign, then drivers would be well advised to be especially careful during May, for it was in that merry month that the highest number of tickets were written, traffic data shows. There were 21 percent more tickets written in May than November, the month when fewest tickets were issued.

An influx of seasonal residents and tourists may account for some of the increases in the winter months, said law enforcement officials. Also, special safety campaigns in May and other months often net a higher than average number of traffic stops, said Guzman.

Major holidays could also have a bit to do with the numbers, especially in January, when officers, during the early morning hours of New Year's Day, stop more cars than usual.

Over the past five years, drivers had a 10 percent higher chance of getting a ticket on New Year's Day than on the other days in the month. Last year, officers wrote 71 traffic tickets to New Year's revelers, compared to a monthly average of 59 tickets per day.

Drivers fared better on other major holidays, including Valentine's Day. The data showed that motorists received 15 percent fewer tickets on Feb. 14 than on other days during that month.

While officers may have given drivers a few breaks during the second week of February, the officers almost universally wrote fewer tickets on the one day of the year reserved for good tidings and cheer: Christmas Day.

In 1997 only six drivers were ticketed _ most by the Brooksville Police Department. That year, the Sheriff's Office issued only one traffic ticket on Christmas Day. The unlucky driver was Jeanne Graham Middleton of Spring Hill, who ran a stop sign in her 1991 Plymouth and received a $76 fine.

"We leave that up to the deputies," said Mylander, who thinks the number may have been low because fewer people drive on Christmas Day. Department staffing on any given day depends largely on how busy the day is expected to be, he said. "Staffing is regulated on the amount of demand," said Mylander. "That would be the determining factor (on fewer tickets), not because it's a holiday."

But Mylander did not dispute that the holiday spirit might have had something to do with the low Christmas ticket count. "Different people do different things," he said of his deputies.

Officers admit they are probably more likely to give someone a break during the holiday season. Deputy William Martinez said that instead of writing a speeding ticket, he has given drivers a "disregarding traffic sign/device" ticket, which has a lower fine and counts fewer points against a driver's license.

"I'm saving them points and a lot of money," Martinez said. "I do that a lot around the holidays. I'd rather write them a ticket for an $83 fine than one for $183 a few days before Christmas. That's just the way I feel."

Guzman, the Florida Highway Patrol lieutenant, said troopers do not take the date into consideration when writing a ticket, but the data shows otherwise. Troopers wrote no traffic tickets in Hernando County on Christmas in 1997 or 1996, the data shows.

"I would find that hard to believe," said Guzman, who theorized that troopers working on Christmas could have been busy with accidents and had no time to write tickets. Or, perhaps there just weren't a lot of troopers working that day.

"There are days when you have one trooper for two counties and that trooper is driving from one side of the county to the other," and doesn't have time to write tickets, Guzman said.

"The public expects us to continue to do our jobs," he said. "We don't really see holidays as any time to stop working or to stop what we're doing."

_ Staff writers Robert Farley and Graham Brink contributed to this report.