If They Want You, They’ll Get You |How Cops Manipulate Legal Language

There is no doubt in the mind of anyone who lives in, or frequently visits South Florida, that law enforcement agencies love writing traffic tickets.  Whether you believe they have quotas or other agendas, which I do, there is just no denying the fact that there is a lot of revenue generated for Broward County through the issuance of traffic tickets.  It doesn’t matter if they are cruising down a roadway or sitting in some obscure location, often cops are just looking for a reason to pull people over.

Now, a cop is not supposed to be able to pull someone over without just cause.  Unfortunately for those drivers who get all of these Broward County traffic tickets, the Florida general statutes are written in legal language which is fraught with ambiguity.  Consequently, police officers use some of the most arbitrary reasons to pull drivers over and then find as many reasons as they can to ticket them.  Here are just afew of them.

Improper passing is addressed in Florida general statute 316.083 and it reads as follows:

  • The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall give an appropriate signal as provided for in s. 316.156, shall pass to the left thereof at a safe distance, and shall not again drive to the right side of the roadway until safely clear of the overtaken vehicle. The driver of a vehicle overtaking a bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle must pass the bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle at a safe distance of not less than 3 feet between the vehicle and the bicycle or other nonmotorized vehicle.
  • Except when overtaking and passing on the right is permitted, the driver of an overtaken vehicle shall give way to the right in favor of the overtaking vehicle, on audible signal or upon the visible blinking of the headlamps of the overtaking vehicle if such overtaking is being at nighttime, and shall not increase the speed of his or her vehicle until completely passed by the overtaking vehicle.

I take issue with how this is written for several reasons.  What is considered “an appropriate signal” is not defined, neither is “safe distance” except as it pertains to a bicycle or other non-motorized vehicle.  It then states three feet is a safe distance for passing those vehicles.  I would not be very comfortable with a car or truck passing that closely to me if I was in a motorized vehicle, much less one that is non-motorized.  With many vehicles, especially oversized trucks or SUVs, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for error.  It also doesn’t take into account the speed at which either of the vehicles is traveling.  Additionally, honking or flashing your lights at someone you want to pass on a Broward County road may very well end up in a road rage incident.

A police officer may witness someone passing and consider it unsafe based upon any of these factors.  If he pulls someone over for improper passing, he can conceivably cite the driver for aggressive/careless driving, reckless driving, following too closely, or a host of other violations based upon his interpretation of this very broad law.

Careless Driving is another of these laws that offers a cop a safety net if he wants to impress the boss with the number of traffic citations he has written.  This violation is addressed in general statute 316.1925 as follows:

  • Any person operating a vehicle upon the streets or highways within the state shall drive the same in a careful and prudent manner, having regard for the width, grade, curves, corners, traffic, and all other attendant circumstances, so as not to endanger the life, limb, or property of any person. Failure to drive in such manner shall constitute careless driving and a violation of this section.

Again, the lack of clarity in defining what “careful and prudent” specifically means is what results in a safe bet for the cop who really wants to write that ticket.  As for the attendant circumstances, the wording in this statute assumes that every driver is well-acquainted with every aspect of every road every day regardless of traffic accidents, road construction, or simply not traveling that road frequently.  That’s an unreasonable expectation, but it’s a great way to offer a catch-all excuse for the motivated cop.

Improper Lane Change is very similar as improper passing insofar as being thinly veiled to leave police officers to judge its meaning and application.

  • No vehicle shall be driven to the left side of the center of the roadway in overtaking and passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction unless authorized by the provisions of this chapter and unless such left side is clearly visible and is free of oncoming traffic for a sufficient distance ahead to permit such overtaking and passing to be completely made without interfering with the operation of any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction of any vehicle overtaken. In every event the overtaking vehicle must return to an authorized lane of travel as soon as practicable and, in the event the passing movement involves the use of a lane authorized for vehicles approaching from the opposite direction, before coming within 200 feet of any approaching vehicle. 
  • No vehicle shall be driven from a direct course in any lane on any highway until the driver has determined that the vehicle is not being approached or passed by any other vehicle in the lane or on the side to which the driver desires to move and that the move can be completely made with safety and without interfering with the safe operation of any vehicle approaching from the same direction.

In fact, this general statute is entitled Limitations on overtaking, passing, changing lanes and changing course.  Well, doesn’t that title pretty much cover everything from the time you turn over the ignition until the time you turn it off?  Again, definitions are lacking for “sufficient distance”, “safety”, and “without interfering” so it leaves law enforcement a wide margin in applying this law.  This statute is also a prime example of how the use of punctuation by the legislature could significantly improve the interpretation of its laws.

Aggressive Careless Driving is another catch-all law that is already covered by other laws, but combines two of six violations that occur at the same time or in succession. This general statute, 316.1932, states:
1) Exceeding the posted speed.
2) Unsafely or improperly changing lane.
3) Following another vehicle too closely.
4) Failing to yield the right-of-way.
5) Improperly passing.
6) Violating traffic control and signal devices.
(General statutes: 322.27 (3)(d)5.b; 316.085; 316.0895(1); 316.079, 316.0815, & 316.123; 316.083, 316.084, & 316.085; 316.074 & 316.075, respectively.)
Granted, the heavier traffic gets, the more “aggressive” some drivers may become, but sometimes, drivers are just trying to get out of the way and get on with their day. With the latitude that the interpretation of traffic law provides, any one of the issues addressed in this statute gives the cop a reason to pull you, and he can easily apply one or more of the others to create an aggressive driving charge, if he chooses to do so.

When it comes to the application of any of the laws I have discussed here, the burden of proof for the police officer varies. In cases where there was no accident as a result of one of these violations, the ambiguous language can leave a lot of room for a traffic ticket attorney to fight the traffic ticket on your behalf. By example, with a careless driving charge, the legal argument can be made that no “life, limb, or property” was endangered if no accident occurred. The police officer who wrote the traffic ticket, therefore, has no evidence to support that anyone or anything was in fact endangered.

These are just a few examples of how blatantly open to explication many of our traffic laws are. As such, it is always helpful to have a traffic ticket attorney on your side to offer a legal opinion as well as to plot a defense strategy such as the one mentioned above. If you get a traffic citation for any reason, give us a call at the Traffic Ticket Team, and let us provide you with a free consultation. The years that we spend in law school were to specifically enable us to interpret and defend such erroneous charges.