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Illegal Tint Enforcement in Tampa Bay

Old 06-01-2004, 04:27 PM
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Illegal Tint Enforcement in Tampa Bay

This applies mre to the Pinellas side of the bay but the Hillsborough side may find this interesting as well.

From the St. Pete Times:

Tinted windows get spotty enforcement
Rarely enforced regulations on window tinting are drawing more attention in light of fatal shootings in 1996 and May.
By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
Published May 31, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - The window tint on Marquell McCullough's truck was too dark.

Pinellas sheriff's deputies used that as the reason to pull him over. But the traffic stop went bad.

Deputies, who could hardly see inside the 2004 Ford F150, said McCullough tried to run them over. They fired 15 times, striking him nine times and killing him.

That May 2 shooting, and the recent civil trial over the 1996 police shooting of TyRon Lewis, have refocused attention on illegal window tinting and renewed the call to enforce a law that rarely gets attention in the Tampa Bay area.

State law says windows cannot be too dark to see through. Overly dark windows can impair drivers' vision and prevent police from seeing inside, police said.

But most departments don't consider the law a priority. And some law enforcement officials, including several administrators in the St. Petersburg Police Department, are concerned that aggressive enforcement will bring complaints of bias-based traffic stops.

"You have to trust that the inner motivation of a policeman is objective," said Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, who does not favor widespread enforcement. "But we know that each person brings a certain amount of bias and prejudice to every situation."

* * *

Illegal tint is easy to get.

Calls to a handful of tinting companies show that for less than $100, some will gladly tint windows darker than the legal limit.

"Nobody wants to do anything about it," said Phil Hoffman, owner of Window Kote in St. Petersburg, which has been in business since 1977.

Hoffman has complained to police that illegal tint is dangerous and hurts his legitimate business.

He has a letter in his shop from Cheryl Young, whose daughter was killed in a car accident in Odessa. She said her daughter's windows had illegal tint, which obstructed her view.

"I implore each of you, as a mother who has lost her child, to encourage your employees never to tint car windows beyond what is legally and reasonably allowable," the letter said.

Extra tinting is a popular accessory, a film applied to the inside of driver, passenger and rear windows after vehicles roll out of the factory. It cuts heat. But when it's too dark, it conceals identities and drivers' actions.

"It's about keeping yourself cool, and yeah, I don't like people seeing me," said Michael Fisher, 19, who got a $46 ticket this month for driving a Chevy Caprice with illegal tint. "It's just privacy."

Pinellas sheriff's deputies searched the Chevy and found marijuana. Fisher was charged with marijuana possession. He said the car and marijuana were not his.

"A lot of times these traffic stops lead to other things," said Chief Mark Durling of the Lee County Sheriff's Office in Fort Myers, which sent letters to tint companies in February asking them to stick with legal tint. "A lot of times to warrant and narcotics arrests. It gives you another tool in the tool box."

* * *

Law enforcement officers have discretion to stop motorists for questionable tinting.

They use a meter that slides over an open window and measures the percentage of light passing through it. The darker the tinting, the lower the meter reading.

But the handheld meters, which cost $79, are not standard issue for officers in most departments, including the Florida Highway Patrol. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has three meters and has issued 27 citations over the last 12 months. St. Petersburg police have two to four meters.

The Tampa Police Department has two, and traffic Officer Howard Buchanan wants to get one assigned to his unit because officers run across plenty of cars with dark windows.

"Some are so dark, so illegally tinted that you get up there, and you're at their mercy," Buchanan said.

In St. Petersburg, tint enforcement has been a concern for several years.

Since 2002, a group of officers has been studying whether to be more pro-active. They reviewed internal affairs cases from 1996 to 2002 in which dark windows were a factor in shootings and traffic stops.

One case was an August 1996 traffic stop by Officer Donald Herring. He couldn't see inside the car, so he tried to look through the windshield. The driver pulled away, striking Herring. He fired through the driver's window, missing the driver.

That shooting prompted the city's Civilian Police Review Committee to recommend that the police department enforce the tint law.

Two months after the Herring incident, on Oct. 24, 1996, Officer Jim Knight stopped TyRon Lewis for speeding.

The windows on Lewis' car were dark, so Knight stood in front of the car to see inside. Lewis, 18, bumped him several times with the front of the car. Knight fired, killing him. The shooting sparked two nights of civil unrest.

Records of recent internal affairs cases involving dark tint were not available from the police department last week.

The officers studying tint enforcement have asked St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon to assign a tint meter to the traffic section and to each of the city's three police districts. But he hasn't.

Harmon and police spokesman Bill Proffitt declined to answer any question about the tint issue. They said the department will not comment while the Pinellas Sheriff's Office conducts an administrative review of the fatal shooting of McCullough.

* * *

On May 2, a Pinellas sheriff's deputy investigating drug sales at a motel on 34th Street N thought McCullough had been involved in a deal.

Although his suspicions were not enough to stop McCullough's truck, the deputy saw its windows were too dark.

Deputies David Antolini and Nelson DeLeon got behind the pickup, but McCullough sped away, then turned into a parking lot and spun the truck around so it was facing their cruisers.

Antolini got out of his car, drew his gun and ordered McCullough, whom he could not see through the tinted windows, to show his hands.

Antolini and DeLeon fired after they said McCullough smashed the pickup into a cruiser, tried to clip Antolini, then headed toward another car.

The investigation later revealed that the man involved in the earlier drug transaction probably was not McCullough, but a man who looked similar and also drove a pickup.

Deputies said they found 38 pieces of crack cocaine in McCullough's pocket.

* * *

The McCullough incident has raised the tint issue to a "new level of concern," said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Phil Quandt, a Fraternal Order of Police representative. He said he will ask Harmon to consider more aggressive tint enforcement throughout the city.

"It brings to light the danger of traffic stops," he said. "It brings to light the fact of not being able to see someone's intentions."

But some question law enforcement's motivation.

"It's a common excuse for what really is racial profiling," said criminal defense attorney John Trevena.

Trevena pointed to a 2001 case in which he represented a black man pulled over by Tarpon Springs Police twice in 24 hours.

Teddrion Flowers, 28, was in a car with illegal tint, but the sergeant did not cite him during the first stop, Trevena said. The next day, the sergeant pulled Flowers over again and wrote him a ticket for illegal tint. He also found marijuana and charged Flowers with possession with intent to sell.

Trevena, who believed the stop was a ruse, tried to get the case thrown out but was unsuccessful.

"The courts seem to go above and beyond to allow these types of traffic stops, which I find troubling," Trevena said.

- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Leanora Minai can be reached at [email protected] or 727 893-8406.
The limits

PASSENGER VEHICLE: Driver and passenger side windows can block out 72 percent of light. Rear side and back windows, 85 percent.

MULTIPURPOSE VEHICLE: Driver and passenger side windows can block out 72 percent of light. Rear side and back windows, 95 percent.

- Source: Window Kote of St. Petersburg, Florida Statutes
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