Activists pressure Broward sheriff to stop arresting drivers for misdemeanors

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Activists are urging the Broward Sheriff’s Office to get tough on minor crimes by going easier on the people who commit them.

Over the last two weeks, a coalition of two dozen church groups called Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice (BOLD Justice) has held two rallies and one community meeting trying to put pressure on Sheriff Gregory Tony to address what they are calling a broken promise.

They say Tony vowed a year ago to stop arresting people for nonviolent driving misdemeanors and instead issue civil citations. That hasn’t happened.

The organizers of BOLD Justice say diversion programs are more likely to reduce repeat offenses than slapping someone with a criminal record that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

But last month, Sheriff’s Office officials told BOLD Justice that driving offenses are not eligible for prearrest diversion after all, leaving hundreds and possibly thousands of Broward residents vulnerable to arrest for offenses like excessive speeding or driving without a license.

“Our people feel lied to and betrayed,” said Pastor Noel Rose of Plantation Seventh-day Adventist Church, a member of the BOLD Justice leadership team. “If he [the sheriff] wants to gain back trust with the community he needs to meet with us immediately and resolve this problem.”

The reality is not that simple, according to the Sheriff’s Office. “Sheriff Gregory Tony and members of his executive command have met with BOLD Justice,” said sheriff’s spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright. “Our deputies will continue to follow the law and criteria for Broward County’s Adult Civil Citation program.”

While BOLD Justice leaders cite 14,000 misdemeanor arrests in their statements about the issue, many of those arrests are legally necessary because of prior offenses or other crimes committed at the same time. And not all are driving offenses.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office recently issued its own annual report boasting an 82% rate of diversion for youths accused of misdemeanors and a partnership with the Broward Public Defender’s Office that directs some nonviolent first-time offenders to a “Court to College Diversion Program.” The program is offered to victims as well.

Another BOLD Justice leader, Brian Anthony Campbell, pastor of 15th Street Church of Christ in Pompano Beach, said effective diversion programs combine accountability with leniency, allowing people to pay for their crimes without being labeled as criminals.

“When someone loses their driver’s license because they can’t afford to pay a fee, arresting them for driving on a suspended license only throws their family into greater poverty,” Campbell said. “The Adult Civil Citation program allows people to face consequences and get the help they need to get their lives back on track, without being branded for life with a criminal record.”

So far Sheriff Tony has not committed to meet again with BOLD Justice.