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10 News Investigators: Traffic tickets, auto citations surge in select Tampa Bay communities

9:26 PM, Oct 15, 2012   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Florida -- Budget cuts mean fewer officers writing tickets in most Bay-area communities, but a few local agencies have reallocated resources to hand out more citations.

The 10 News Investigators crunched six years worth of data provided by the state from every law enforcement agency in Florida and most of the biggest surges belonged to police departments that introduced red-light cameras (RLC) in 2011.

The small town of Haines City in Polk County wrote more than three times as many citations in 2011 (15,630) compared to 2010 (4,982), thanks to nearly 8,800 RLC citations.

But even when RLCs are taken out of the equation, police officers in Haines City wrote 37 percent more citations in 2011 than in 2010.

LOOKUP YOUR LOCAL AGENCY'S CITATION NUMBERS

Other agencies with traffic ticket surges include:

  • Sarasota Co. Sheriff's Office, up 10 percent in 2011 (38,960 citations)
  • Port Richey Police Dept., up 8 percent (3,717 citations), plus 3,339 more RLC citations
  • USF Police, up 43 percent (1,695 citations)
  • Tampa International Airport Police, up 26 percent (1,386 citations)
  • Hardee Co. Sheriff's Office, up 41 percent (1,397 citations)

While municipalities receive large portions of RLC citation revenue, they receive virtually none of the fines collected for traffic violations.

"We don't see a dime of it," said USF Police Chief Thomas Longo, who said he pushed for more traffic enforcement simply because of safety. "In my mind, when bikes are crashing into cars, it's time to step things up and address it."

In Sarasota County, Sheriff Tom Knight has pushed his deputies to write more tickets since he first won election in 2008. For three straight years, citation numbers have increased, and Knight said accident rates have decreased.

"(Residents) wanted me to do something about them getting cut off and getting run over and texting and driving," Knight said of common complaints he heard about drivers in Sarasota County.

Knight said he wishes he controlled the fee schedule too, but the hardest part of enforcing traffic laws is how expensive it is when someone gets a citation. Since the legislature has increased the fine schedule in recent years, Sarasota deputies say it's become harder to write tickets to their fellow hard-working residents.

"Most people live paycheck to paycheck," said Sgt. Darrell Seckendorf. "Even a $200 ticket, even though you have 31 days to pay it, will still wreak havoc."

Seckendorf said he often uses his discretion to reduce the violation a driver is guilty of in order to protect his or her wallet. He also said quotas are illegal in Florida, so he is never pressured to write more tickets at any given time.

Knight encouraged upset drivers to direct their frustrations at the legislators that set the fee schedule, not his deputies.

But at the end of the day, those who don't speed or run red lights don't get tickets.

"I live in this county and I want this county to be safe," Seckendorf said. "I want, when my family goes out on the roadway, (my wife isn't) going to have to worry about someone running her off the road or smashing into her."

Most of the agencies profiled last year by 10 News for big surges in 2010 saw modest declines in 2011. They include the Tarpon Springs Police Department (down 30 percent), the Zephyrhills Police Department (down 13 percent), and the Dade City Police Department (down 39 percent).

Friend 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook at www.facebook.com/noahpransky or Twitter at www.twitter.com/noahpransky.  Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.com.

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