We all know how frustrating it can be having someone aggressively tailgating you: but when can the police subject you to a traffic stop for “following too closely?”
According to Florida Statutes section 316.0895:
The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon, and the condition of, the highway
This is a traffic law, not a criminal statute. So the police can write you a citation for this, with the same civil penalties as a speeding ticket or any other moving violation, generally speaking. But what’s often more valuable to the police than the citation is the fact that an alleged violation of this traffic law is often the basis the police use for justifying a traffic stop which often gives rise to a more investigative, accusatory experience. It’s no wonder there are approximately 20,000 traffic stops for alleged violations of this traffic statute alone every year in Florida!
Of these 20,000 traffic stops for alleged violations of the “following too close” statute, typically 200-300 of those traffic stops are conducted in the Gainesville and Alachua County areas.
If you’re looking at the statute and saying to yourself “that sure seems like it gives law enforcement a lot of discretion to subject people to traffic stops,” you’re not alone. This is why it is often said that more specialized, more proactive law enforcement units such as task forces and the like often make broad use of this statute in order to make contact with motorists and try to build cases from there (commonly drug and credit card cases). A few years ago, the news agency Reuters broke a story after two senior DEA officials spoke under conditions of anonymity and revealed that law enforcement sometimes uses what’s called the “parallel construction” approach to building cases. This basically means that national security assets are used to gain intelligence, often from warrantless wiretaps or electronic surveillance (or other methods that are permissible for military applications but not for traditional law-enforcement activities), and then that intelligence information (which is not subject to cross-examination, the discovery process, or any other constitutional safeguards) is passed along to state and local law enforcement basically as a “tip,” and then your car just happens to get pulled over by a police SUV with a drug dog in the back.
More recently, the Washington Post broke a story about a privately-run and maintained law-enforcement “intelligence sharing database” that allowed different agencies to share information and tips with each other as part of their overall effort to make more traffic stops and carry out more cash seizures, often used to fund their often-under-funded departments. The problem was that program, dubbed “Black Asphalt,” was understandably criticized as being basically a way for the police to justify otherwise pretextual traffic stops by doing an end-run around the discovery process. In other words, it was criticized for being an unconstitutional means in support of a cash-grab. I offer this just as some context for the multitude of traffic stops happening these days: when people complain about pretextual stops, it is not something that they’ve “just made up.” It’s a thing.
But, in any event, what does it mean to “follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent?” It is not further defined anywhere in the law. There is no additional guidance from the legislature. So, a policeman may pull someone over for being literally inches from another motorist’s bumper (an obvious “aggressive tailgating” situation), or she may pull someone over for pretty much any other scenario where she can articulate something unreasonable or imprudent about the distance between the vehicles.
So the police carry out a traffic stop for “following too closely.” Many officers may take the position that they have been taught the rule that there should be one car length for every 10 m.p.h. of speed that the vehicles are operating at. But this rule of thumb does not seem to be based on anything other than that it’s what’s taught in drivers’ ed. The average vehicle length is approximately 15 feet. So, at normal highway speeds of 70 m.p.h., that would mean almost 105 feet between each vehicle and the next. Anyone who has ever driven on the interstate knows that vehicles routinely are substantially closer than this to each other under normal highway-speed operating conditions, without raising commonly-accepted safety concerns.
Now, of course, we truly don’t want people out there aggressively tailgating other drivers and causing road-rage situations and accidents. But it can definitely also be said that there should be more guidance as to what constitutes a legitimate stop in this context, to mitigate the risk of pretextual stops and the resulting improprieties (or even the appearance of improprieties). Until then, motorists should be advised that when it comes to the police making a traffic stop for following too closely, they can and will exercise wide discretion when it comes to making liberal use of this traffic law.