‘Stop being racist:’ Tickets for loud music nearly 3 times more likely for Black drivers under new Florida law
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Darius Jermaine Ned Thomas Jr. was driving west on the Florida parkway in Jacksonville that runs along the St. Johns River, listening to music on a Friday afternoon in August in his Chevrolet Malibu sedan, when a sheriff's deputy in a marked SUV pulled him over.
"When you drove by me, I had my windows up, you had your windows up, and I could clearly hear your radio," Jacksonville Sheriff's Office deputy M.L. Albert told Thomas, according to recorded video of the traffic stop.
Albert handed the driver a $114 ticket under a new Florida law making it illegal to play music that can be heard more than 25 feet away – effectively two car lengths – or louder than necessary to hear it when a vehicle is near a home, church, school or hospital.
"You are going to get a citation for the music," the deputy told the driver. "You cannot hear the music more than 25 feet away. We're cracking down on that now."
Thomas, 22, didn't protest as he leaned out the window to accept the ticket: "Yeah, yeah, OK," he said. He pleaded guilty in court and paid $140.77 with late fees and other costs the following month. An agency spokeswoman declined to make Albert available to discuss the roadside encounter.
Black drivers, like Thomas, are nearly three times more likely than white drivers to be ticketed under the law, according to a new analysis that is part of an investigative reporting project in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The law was passed by Florida’s GOP-controlled Legislature last year and signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The investigation is the first broad review of enforcement of the law since it took effect nearly one year ago. It examined nearly 850 loud music tickets from May through December, obtained under Florida’s public records laws from the state’s Traffic Citation Accounting Transmission System.
The figures showed that Black drivers received almost 37% of the tickets, despite Black people making up only about 16% of Florida's driving-eligible population. White non-Hispanic drivers received about 46% of the tickets, with white non-Hispanic people making up 56% of the state's driving-eligible population. Police officers and deputies issued the rest of the tickets for loud music to drivers identified as Hispanic, “other,” such as multiracial, or Native American.
Future investigations of how authorities enforce the law in Florida will be hampered under a new drivers’ privacy law that the same Legislature passed two days before it approved new tickets for loud music. That law, which blocks the release of some information from traffic tickets and crash reports, took effect two months ago, in March.
“Stop being racists”
“It’s just pointless to have spent your money to put a system in your car, and then you can’t play it,” said Tajawaun Ontarien Curtis, 26, of Gainesville. Police issued him a $109 ticket in July on a busy road near churches and convenience stores. He paid it in October plus a $25 fee for not paying it sooner.
Curtis, who is Black, said he upgraded the stereo in his car to make his music sound better but disputed that it was playing louder than other cars. Since his traffic stop, he said, he doesn’t turn on his stereo while driving.
Carven Exantus, 34, of Miami has been ticketed five times for loud music – at $129 each – by police in Miami Beach, including twice the same day 90 minutes apart in October. Exantus, who is Black, beat four of the tickets in court, so far. His most recent ticket was the afternoon of March 9 along Ocean Drive. He has pleaded not guilty.
He urged police and the Legislature to suspend enforcing the law: “Stop being racists, simple. Something is disproportionately affecting one group, and it's designed to be that way. If it's walking and quacking like a duck, it's a duck. It's racist.”
His cousin and roommate, Max Emmanuel Benjamin, 22, of Miami, was ticketed twice in seven days in October, also by police in Miami Beach for music being too loud. Benjamin, who is Black, paid $145 for each ticket, which were issued at night on different days than his cousin’s by different officers.
Exantus and Benjamin were ticketed driving road-legal golf carts with license plates and headlights for Exantus’ business, Crew Cart Services LLC of Miami. It offers tours, pick-ups and drop-offs for tourists and locals along the beach district. The carts, with stereos, are open-air with no doors and no windows.
“We're getting harrassed to the point where I can't even conduct business,” Exantus said.
His business partner, Fred Laurice Johnson, 33, has been ticketed four times in Miami Beach for loud music and contested all the $129 tickets. On Friday, he beat a ticket in court that accused him of playing Maroon 5 too loudly on Dec. 1. The judge dismissed it when the officer didn't show up to testify. Johnson, who is Black, and Exantus said they have never seen police use a sound-measuring device before writing tickets for loud music.
"It's up to the cop's discretion," Exantus said. "I've asked, 'Can you show me and prove to me that we're being too loud?' Then they get really mad, and they'll definitely give me two tickets after that."
Benjamin, Exantus’ cousin said: “This law has been something. Both times, I had a full cart and there were loud people on it. The music wasn’t at max volume.” He added: “We’ve been pulled over for so many little things. The cops, especially certain cops, are always looking to pull us over.”
"I don't like nothing about that law”
Sim Oliver Crum Jr., 46, of Starke in north-central Florida was ticketed three times under the new law, twice in October by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and in December by Gainesville police. Crum, who is Black, said he believes authorities are using the new law to target Black drivers.
"I was saying that from the beginning, that this law would target Blacks," Crum said. "I don't like nothing about that law, period. You should be able to play your music if you want. What do they have to do to prove they can hear you play your music from 25 feet away?"
Crum contested all three tickets. A judge in Gainesville last month ordered him to pay $132 before May 22. An officer there told him his music was too loud on a Sunday morning at 12:30 a.m. downtown. “He said he heard music from three blocks away,” Crum said.
Crum lost one of his cases last week in Jacksonville. A judge dismissed one ticket when the officer failed to show, but found him guilty in the other case and assessed him the $114 fine.
Crum said deputies in Jacksonville on Oct. 9 converged on a parking lot where cars were parked with music playing. He said his own stereo was turned off and car doors swung open. “They said I was playing the music,” he said.
A deputy pulled him over Oct. 16 – just seven days later – and ticketed him for loud music after Crum said the deputy noticed his after-market speakers in his sedan and for red and blue LED lights inside his vehicle.
Crum said in every case the deputies or officer separately asked to search his vehicle. He declined each time, he said.
Rondrae Thomas Wright, 49, of Coral Springs, was cited in Fort Lauderdale on July 1 driving a Slingshot three-wheeled motorcycle along the oceanfront boulevard near Sebastian Street Beach. The police officer said he could hear Wright's music even as Wright drove away from him. A judge dismissed the ticket after Wright, who is Black, fought it in traffic court two months later.
Wright said he felt targeted. “That was exactly what that was about,” he said in an interview. “I was like, damn, my radio is not even loud. I couldn’t believe he did that.” His wife, seated next to him in the cockpit that day, was in disbelief, researching the new music law using Google as the police officer wrote the ticket, he said.
“Hey, you need to lower your music”
Police said the new law is helping to reduce noise where cars are driving with loud music. Officer Mike Vega, a spokesman for the Miami Police Department, said officers are pulling over egregious cases. The agency there issued 65 tickets over six months, including to 18 Black drivers, 27 to white drivers and 20 to drivers identified in license records as “other.”
“We now have the authority to go and say, ‘Hey, you need to lower your music,’” Vega said.
The new analysis calculated the rate for tickets for people by race or ethnicity in Florida based on their driving-eligible ages – between 16 and 85, based on the latest Census Bureau figures. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles said it does not track the actual numbers of the state’s 17.9 million licensed drivers by race or ethnicity.
No race or ethnicity was included from the state for drivers on 90 of the 844 loud music tickets. Details about all those drivers except 18 were located in other publicly available government records, such as voter registration files, hunting or fishing licenses, criminal records or other traffic tickets.
Law enforcement cited Black drivers at a rate of just over 11 tickets per 100,000 Black drivers, and cited white drivers at a rate of 3.9 tickets per 100,000 white drivers. The oldest driver in Florida ticketed for loud music was 69 years old; the youngest was 16. Both were Black.
Marven Wilson of Margate, who turned 70 in December, was ticketed July 3 on a Harley Davidson by a Fort Lauderdale police officer on a Sunday evening just blocks from where Wright had been ticketed days earlier on the same stretch of beach boulevard in his Slingshot. The officer said he heard Wilson's music "down the roadway" and that Wilson told the officer he would simply turn his radio back on when he drove away. Wilson paid the $115 ticket.
Tracking how Florida’s loud music law is enforced in the future will be hampered by another new law the Legislature passed last year. Signed by DeSantis in June and sponsored by Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and Rep. Chuck Brannan III, R-Lake City, the proposals blocked the release of some driver information on traffic tickets or crash reports after March 1. Citing the need to protect drivers’ privacy, lawmakers in the House voted for the new law 115-1, and the Senate voted 35-3 to keep such details off limits to the public.
"When these reports are out there, and you have things like your date of birth and your driver's license number, this is ripe for fraud," Harrell said last year during legislative hearings.
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, warned that the new law would prevent scrutiny of how police ticket drivers. "Without the redacted traffic citation information, it's harder to track tickets and we can't see if they're being disproportionately issued in certain areas," she said last year during debate on the bill. She voted against it, along with then-Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale and then-Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami.
The new analysis showing Black drivers being ticketed far more often used drivers' dates of birth and license numbers – which are now confidential – to help track them down across Florida for interviews, find court records in their cases and confirm details about their race or ethnicity when authorities failed to note it.
Some law enforcement agencies that ticketed large numbers of drivers, including the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, declined to discuss how they were enforcing the law.
Miami Beach issued the most loud music tickets, at 155 – with 75 for Black drivers. The sheriff’s office in Jacksonville issued 67, with 49 for Black drivers. In Gainesville, where police ticketed Crum and the police chief is Black, officers wrote 26, with 21 for Black drivers. A police spokesman there, Sgt. Joseph Castor, said he was not immediately available for an interview.
Around Orlando, the Orange County Sheriff's Office and Orlando Police Department together wrote 37 tickets, including 21 for Black drivers, 12 for Hispanic ones and only four for white ones. In Lakeland, east of Tampa, police wrote 14 tickets, including half to Black drivers. Donald Edward Nelson III, 39, of Jacksonville was ticketed three times there, including twice the same night. Nelson, who is Black, paid $251 for two of the tickets, and a judge dismissed the third after the officer acknowledged he inadvertently ticketed Nelson twice in the same case.
Some of the state's largest law enforcement agencies weren't writing many tickets: The Miami-Dade Police Department, which oversees the county's 2.2 million residents outside the City of Miami, wrote seven. The sheriff's office in Broward County, where nearly 2 million people live, wrote six. Police and sheriff's deputies wrote 10 in Sarasota County, all to white drivers. In Hillsborough County, the sheriff's office and Tampa Police Department together wrote 13 tickets among its 1.5 million residents.
Origin of the new law
Florida's Republican-controlled House passed the bill allowing loud music tickets last year 83-32, largely along party lines. All but one of the 19 House Democrats who were Black voted against it. One Black Republican supported it. Eighty-one white lawmakers voted for it, including 76 Republicans.
The last stop in the Senate, the Rules Committee, approved its version of the bill 11-6, with three of the four Black lawmakers on the panel voting against it. The Senate deferred to the House version, which DeSantis signed on May 26. The new law took effect immediately.
The House bill's sponsor, Rep. Tom Leek, R-Daytona Beach, said last year that it was intended to crack down on so-called popup parties or meets – he called them “invasions” – that have been the subject of complaints by homeowners in neighborhoods where drivers gather and generate too much noise.
"They come in, they shut down the street, just block traffic entirely, have a party for a couple hours and then leave,” Leek said at a legislative hearing last year. Leek did not respond to phone messages and emails since last week asking to discuss how the law he championed was being enforced.
Police in Daytona Beach Shores along the Atlantic coast – in Leek’s district – issued 17 loud music tickets over a single June weekend during an unsanctioned truck meet there. The department said on its Facebook page it was its first use of the new law. It said police were targeting "illegal and destructive behavior" after incidents the previous year. All those drivers were white. The music tickets were among 688 traffic citations that rainy weekend, the agency said. They towed 46 trucks.
Florida previously had a similar ban against loud car music, but the state’s Supreme Court in 2012 found it unconstitutional, calling it “a vague, overbroad statute that lacks time, place and manner limitations that virtually guarantees arbitrary enforcement.” That ban had exceptions for political or business advertisements, which the court said was discriminatory. This new statute makes exceptions only for emergency vehicles.
"Blaring ice cream trucks and sound trucks broadcasting political messages are not covered by the statute," the justices wrote, unanimously overturning the law in 2012. "They can crank out 'Pop Goes the Weasel' to lure children or broadcast empty political promises that can be heard 500 feet away. However, a citizen parked next to the ice cream or sound truck gets a citation if the 'rhythmic bass' from his car stereo can even be 'detected' just 25 feet away."
“I don't think this was a good idea”
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Hillsborough, was among those who voted against the bill last year. She said her main concern was for Black youth. Hart, who is Black, asked, how many of them will be pulled over for their music?
“I don't think this was a good idea to have to put it into a bill,” Hart said.
She said her constituents haven’t complained to her about the bill, and she doesn’t know of plans among lawmakers to change the law. No lawmaker introduced a bill this year to change the law or how it was being enforced. This year’s legislative session was expected to end Friday.
“We need to pay attention so that we can find out how it's impacting Black youth,” Hart said.
The new loud music law follows Florida’s ban on texting and driving, which passed in 2019. That law included a provision requiring police to track the race and ethnicity of anyone ticketed for texting for an annual report for the governor and Legislature. The loud music law has no such provision requiring regular scrutiny of how it is enforced.
The texting and driving ban hasn’t led to the same racial imbalance among ticketed drivers as the loud music law.
For every 100 people pulled over for the texting and driving ban, about 12 were Black, according to the latest state report on enforcement statistics. Meanwhile, out of every 100 people pulled over under the music law, nearly 37 were Black.
Other states have more lenient laws banning drivers from being too noisy. Georgia prohibits drivers playing music that can be heard 100 feet away. Rhode Island also prohibits sounds or music that can be heard 100 feet away.
A professor of criminal justice, Matthew Robinson at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, said Black drivers could be playing music more loudly than others, or driving or living in areas where police are patrolling more regularly, or police are looking more closely at Black drivers.
“All of those are possible explanations, and I would suspect there’s some truth in each of them,” Robinson said.
Car audio experts said even playing music at moderate volume with windows down can be heard 25 feet away.
“There's other things that create that noise from that distance, and it doesn't seem to be a problem,” said Omar Jawad, owner of Sound Depot and Performance in Gainesville. “It does feel discriminatory to me.”
The new law isn’t making roads quieter, said Marcos Bosque, 54, owner of the Miami Pro Audio car stereo business in Jacksonville. It’s giving police more opportunities to pull people over, he said.
Along Brickell Avenue in Miami, tall buildings create echoes of revving engines and loud music, said Nestor Suarez, publisher of MiamiCars.com, an online car community there. He is sensitive to concerns about noise from vehicles, but he’s a critic of the new law.
“We should not pass laws that make everyone a lawbreaker, and then let the cops be the ones who decide who should be prosecuted or not,” Suarez said.
This story was produced as an investigative reporting project in the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.