Florida Sheriff Backtracks on Reform to Stop Arrests for Minor Traffic Offenses

Gregory Tony, a DeSantis appointee, restricted Broward County deputies’ ability to cite people instead of jailing them. His Democratic primary in August may decide the policy’s future.

Lauren Gill   |    June 25, 2024

Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony speaks in 2019 after being introduced by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at the Broward County Sheriff’s Office in Fort Lauderdale. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

Addy Lubin remembers feeling helpless when a police officer arrested her for driving with a suspended license in Miami 15 years ago. Lubin had recently paid off her unpaid toll bills, which should have reinstated her license, but one of the payments didn’t go through because of a clerical error. Seeing that her license was still suspended, the officer who stopped Lubin then arrested her and booked her into jail. 

Lubin spent the night there. “It was so disgusting and it was dirty,” she said. “There was one toilet and like 20 of us in one cell.” 

“That was so disheartening because he didn’t have to take me to jail,” she added.

Under Florida law, whenever officers stop someone who is driving with a suspended license, they have the discretion to arrest them and book them in jail or issue a criminal traffic citation to appear in court. In some places, they can also issue a civil citation for a diversion program, which allows people to avoid jail and the criminal legal system. 

In recent years, Florida advocates have pushed for law enforcement agencies that patrol the state, whether police departments and sheriffs’ offices, to stop arresting and jailing people over low-level traffic offenses, which they say needlessly entangles people in the criminal justice system and saddles them with more fines and fees they can’t afford. The majority of licenses suspended in Florida are for unpaid court debt. 

Instead, advocates are asking law enforcement leaders to expand their use of civil citations for people who are pulled over for certain nonviolent driving offenses, such as driving with a suspended license, invalid license, or expired license plates. 

In Miami-Dade, where Lubin was arrested, this push has seen some success. County leadership is in the process of adding specific traffic offenses to the list of misdemeanors that are eligible for its civil citation program. But in neighboring Broward County, where Lubin worships, Sheriff Gregory Tony has reversed his county’s policy of listing nonviolent driving offenses in the county’s civil citation program. Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, has the largest sheriff’s office in Florida. It is the chief law enforcement agency in charge of patrolling the county. 

“I was fortunate in that I was able to get out and get that arrest taken care of. But not so many people are in that position,” said Lubin, who is a board member of BOLD Justice, a coalition of Broward County faith leaders who work to advance racial and economic justice. “We’re not even asking for something new to be put on the books. The program already exists. It’s just about ensuring law enforcement executes it.”

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office declined to make Tony available for an interview and told Bolts in an emailed statement, “BSO deputies will continue to follow Florida law and the criteria for Broward County’s Adult Civil Citation program.”

Tony was appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis in 2019 after the Republican governor removed the prior sheriff from office. A Republican at the time of his appointment, Tony soon switched parties to be a Democrat—Republicans struggle to win office in this heavily blue county—and DeSantis recently named Tony as one of his favorite Democratic officials in Florida. Tony is up for re-election this year and faces three challengers in the Aug. 20 Democratic primary.

One challenger, David Howard, told Bolts that he is open to expanding the civil citation program to include specific driving offenses. 

Doing so would have widespread impact. Out of the nearly 1.6 million residents of Broward County with driver’s licenses, more than 61,000 people have a suspended license, according to data from the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles provided to Bolts. It’s unclear how many of those are suspended because of unpaid court debt because the state did not return a request for records in time for publication. In 2019, however, 77 percent of license suspensions in Broward County were for court debt, according to a report that year by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, an organization that works to get rid of bills in the criminal justice system.

“We shouldn’t criminalize those individuals because they cannot afford to pay that fine or that fee,” said Brian Anthony Campbell, a minister who is a member of BOLD Justice. “That’s really what we’re fighting against, the criminalization of poverty.”

Before Broward County adopted a civil citation program in 2018, deputies who suspected someone had committed a low-level, nonviolent offense had to funnel them through the criminal legal system by either arresting them or issuing them a criminal citation. They also had the choice to let them go. The new program gave officers another option: People could avoid a criminal record and the costs that go with it by completing community service, attending educational programming, and paying a program fee.

The county left it to the sheriff’s office to decide which offenses are eligible for the diversion program. 

At first, the sheriff’s office included driving offenses on the list of eligible offenses, according to a 2019 training bulletin reviewed by Bolts that also lists misdemeanors such as battery with minor injury, low-level theft, assault, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct, and possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. “Misdemeanor criminal traffic offenses (DWLS w/Knowledge, No Valid DL, etc.) will be issued an Adult Civil Citation in lieu of a misdemeanor criminial [sic] traffic citation or physical arrest when feasible,” the bulletin said. 

Since its start in 2019, the sheriff’s office has referred 313 people to the civil citation program, according to data from the Broward County Division of Justice Services obtained by Bolts. Of those referrals, 284 people enrolled in the diversion program and 86 percent of people successfully completed it. 

According to the county data, deputies have never referred someone to the program for a traffic offense.

(Photo from Facebook/Broward Sheriff’s Office)

After realizing that the sheriff’s office wasn’t referring anyone to the civil citation program for driving offenses, BOLD Justice leadership last year pushed for Tony to include these offenses as long as the suspension wasn’t associated with a dangerous offense such as driving under the influence, as first reported by WLRN. Campbell said Tony agreed to the change when he attended the organization’s annual convening in spring 2023. 

“We left that meeting with the understanding that that would be the policy, what we were working on and fighting for,” Campbell told Bolts

By January, BOLD Justice obtained data from the sheriff’s office showing people were still being arrested for driving with suspended or invalid licenses. Veda Coleman-Wright, public information director for the Broward sheriff’s office, told Bolts in an email that it’s “rare” for someone to be arrested for only having a suspended license and that they usually have other charges. 

After receiving the data, Campbell reviewed a copy of the sheriff’s office’s operating procedures manual. It showed that in December 2023, rather than including misdemeanor driving offenses in the civil citation program as the 2019 bulletin did, Tony had actually reversed his office’s position and specifically excluded them.

Noel Rose, a pastor in Broward County and member of BOLD Justice, said the sheriff has voiced concerns to another member that DeSantis may remove him from office because of the civil citation program. DeSantis removed Tony’s predecessor, Sheriff Scott Israel, in 2019 because of the way his office handled the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. DeSantis also removed Hillsborough County State Attorney Andrew Warren and Orlando State Attorney Monique Worrell from their posts over their reform policies that he opposes.

“That has been one of the reasons that the sheriff shared but we were just disappointed with him…because he made a commitment,” Rose told Bolts.

Howard, one of Tony’s challengers in the primary and a former police chief in Pembroke Park, a town in Broward County, criticized the sheriff for backtracking. In an interview with Bolts, Howard called Tony “a great gaslighter” and said that if he were elected, he has “no issue” with expanding civil citations as long as the office’s legal team signs off on the change. 

Tony’s other two Democratic challengers, Steve Geller and Al Pollock did not respond to requests for comment from Bolts. (The winner of the primary will be favored in the general election against independent candidate Charles Whatley; no Republican has filed to run.)

A spokesperson for State Attorney Harold Pryor, a Democrat whose office is in charge of prosecuting people who are arrested by the sheriff’s office, told Bolts he has encouraged Tony’s office to expand the civil citation program, and will continue to do so.

Broward County prosecutors drop the charges against people who are arrested for having a suspended license as long as they get a valid driver’s license within 30 days of arraignment and the charge isn’t related to an accident, a spokesperson for the office told Bolts. People who don’t have the money to get their license reinstated within that period also have the option to enroll in a driver’s license diversion program that educates them about how to get their license back, in part by requiring them to enter into a payment plan. 

Since 2020, Florida advocates have urged lawmakers to pass legislation that would eliminate driver’s license suspensions for unpaid court debt, but the bills have failed to gain traction. That’s likely because Florida’s courts are funded by fines and fees resulting from criminal and traffic convictions, said Sarah Couture, Florida state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

People who go through Florida’s legal system are billed fines and fees falling under dozens of categories. As of 2018, the average cost of a misdemeanor was $1,000. If someone misses a payment, their license can be suspended, and after 90 days, their court bills are sent to a collections agency, which can add a surcharge of up to 40 percent, further inflating the amount owed.

Roughly three-quarters of drivers license suspensions in Florida are for unpaid court debt and the majority of drivers licenses are suspended for two years, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center report. 

But the courts view license suspensions as “their only tool to compel people to pay their fines and fees,” so there hasn’t been an appetite to get rid of license suspensions for unpaid court debt, said Couture. 

In the absence of state legislators stopping the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid court debt, several Florida counties have implemented civil citation programs for people with non-dangerous traffic offenses. Advocates in Miami-Dade County, the state’s most populous county, began working to expand their civil citation program in 2021. 

Roughly one-third of licensed drivers in Miami-Dade County had a suspended license, according to a July 2022 report by a task force assigned to study drivers license suspensions in the county. Approximately 63 percent of those licenses were suspended because they failed to pay court debt. The task force also found that a disproportionate number of people with suspended licenses were from low-income areas. There were also racial disparities; six out of ten drivers who received a citation for a suspended license were Black, compared to the county’s population being just 17 percent Black. 

Miami-Dade officials—including the county’s head public defender, state attorney, clerk of the court, and chief judge—approved a plan to make driving related offenses eligible for their civil citation program this year. Those offenses include driving with a suspended license, not having a valid driver’s license, and having a suspended license plate. It excludes suspensions for DUIs and dangerous driving. 

County leaders are expected to give their final approval for the plan by the end of the summer.

“It would mean that thousands less people are being arrested and either ending up in jail or ending up with court fines and fees and also an arrest record,” said Jenneva Clauss, associate organizer for PACT, a sister organization to BOLD Justice. 

Clauss said she was disappointed that Tony in Broward County was not moving forward with the program as well. “It’s very unfortunate,” she said. “This needs to be happening everywhere in Florida because hundreds of thousands of people are impacted.” 

Correction (June 26): An earlier version of this story misstated Pryor’s name.

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