FAIR WARNING?: ‘Educational approach:’ Warnings far outweigh traffic tickets in Destin

Matt Algarin
Deputies from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office keep a close eye on motorists along U.S. Hwy. 98 as part of their patrols. Pictured is Deputy John Jenks.

More than half of the drivers that are pulled over by deputies in Destin are given warnings rather than citations.

"The goal of deputies is voluntary compliance," said Michele Nicholson, spokeswoman for the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office. "For the most part, with minor violations, they typically look at the person's driving history to see if this is a one-time type violation versus a pattern of bad behavior before deciding whether to issue a ticket versus a warning."

Based on data provided to the city of Destin by the sheriff's office, deputies have issued drivers a total of 1,131 warnings for various offenses, while writing 546 citations between July 2012 and January 2013.

Compared to neighboring cities such as Fort Walton and Niceville, deputies in Destin have written far fewer citations. In the same six-month period, there were 1,547 traffic citations written by the Niceville Police Department and 2,171 tickets written by the Fort Walton Beach Police Department.

The 2 to 1 ratio of warnings to tickets caught the attention of Councilman Jim Wood.

"I'm a law and order and safety guy," Wood said. "If they are speeding, give them a ticket."

Since the city began collecting traffic stop data from the sheriff's office, Wood has been closely monitoring the statistics. With about a year of information collected to this point, Wood told The Log the next step is to figure out what the "science and analysis" behind the numbers are, and how it can be useful to the city.

He said the city could possibly use the data when it's reviewing the cost of the sheriff's contract, which is done on an annual basis.

"It would help decision making versus just looking at the budget," Wood said. "We can do all the analysis we want, but what do you do with it?"

While Councilman Wood would like to see more citations issued to drivers, Councilman Tuffy Dixon says not so fast.

"I would prefer to see people given the benefit of the doubt," he said. "Warnings go a long way with the residents and the visitors, and they provide for a positive image in the community. You don't want to go out there and start ticketing everybody."

As a veteran firefighter and longtime chief at the Destin Fire Control District, Dixon says he has “seen a lot of crazy things out there.”

“And you know if someone is driving recklessly or doing something they shouldn't be intentionally," he said. "In that case, yes, they should get a ticket. A warning is good enough, unless it's something obvious like DUI."

In Destin, the sheriff's office also tracks the number of arrests, DUI-traffic offenses, and traffic crashes, both with and without injuries. In this six-month period, there were 63 arrests made, 104 DUI-related arrests, 55 crashes with injuries and 490 traffic crashes without injury.

The most common offenses drivers can find themselves pulled over for include speeding, careless driving, burnt out or missing headlights/taillights, swerving, and illegal lane changes, according to Nicholson.

"Deputies have caught serial killers through routine traffic stops," she told The Log.

Okaloosa County deputies recently pulled over a man in Fort Walton Beach that was a suspect in the 2003 murder of a California man. The man was originally arrested for not having a valid driver's license or insurance, before immigration officials determined his real identity.

Given the technology currently available to deputies through car-based laptops, they are more quickly able to check an individual’s driving history and criminal records in a matter of minutes. This information helps deputies in their day-to-day interaction with drivers they pull over.

And while Nicholson said deputies are using more of an "educational approach" during traffic stops, that doesn't mean they are not writing tickets.

"For significant violations like reckless driving or school zone infractions, tickets are more the rule of thumb, and of course it's a mandatory arrest for DUI."