Reducing the sting of close encounters between Georgia drivers and cops

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State Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, in a 2016 file photo. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com

Before we begin this discussion, let us agree on one point: Running a stop sign is wrong, even dangerous. The correct procedure is to come to a stop and count off two Mississippi’s. Only then do you continue life’s journey.

Everyone on board?

That said, state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, may be on the verge of becoming a hero to commuters and kid-haulers throughout metro Atlanta and beyond.

Setzler is the author of House Bill 390, a bill intended to reduce the financial pain that comes with a ticket for rolling through a stop sign. And perhaps also smooth over the anger and frustration generated when a driver feels unfairly targeted by the badge who makes what, in some cases, is a judgment call.

Setzler’s bill would cap the fine for the crime at $100, and would eliminate all three driver’s license points that ride on it. It would apply only to vehicles traveling five miles an hour or less. And only in instances where the barely moving vehicle poses no threat to other cars, people or property.

“We’re not saying it’s okay to run a stop sign. All we’re trying to create is balance and proportionality to the act itself,” Setzler said. So far, his colleagues in the Capitol agree. The House gave unanimous approval to the bill last week. It’s now in the Senate.

The Legislature often handles big, tough issues — opioid addiction, firearms and where to carry them, access to health care and the like. Setzler is the first to say that his stop-sign bill isn’t one of them.

In the grand scheme of things, his bill addresses a small, unimportant problem. But it’s one that can really, really yank your chain. In part because it’s not necessarily subject to logic.

Rolling through a stop sign at half a mile an hour currently gets you the same three-point penalty as traveling 24 miles per hour over the speed limit.

It’s not the fine that hurts, Setzler said. “It’s the $30 a month you pay for the next 36 months as you let a three-point violation work its way through your insurance policy,” he said. “It’s about a $1,300 hit on a family if you do this. Should it be a $1,300 hit over three years on a family’s bottom line or not?”

I asked the Acworth lawmaker whether he’d ever been popped for rolling through an intersection. Yes, he said. But it’s also worth noting that Setzler’s set of wheels doesn’t bear a car tag that identifies the driver as a state lawmaker. That’s a point in his favor, for such tags have been known to serve as a shield from the vagaries of law enforcement.

Setzler said HB 390 was inspired by a woman in his district who was driving through a Cobb County neighborhood — not far from my own — that she knew was heavily patrolled by an officer with a reputation as a hard case when it came to stop signs. She saw the cop. She thought she had stopped. He didn’t.

HB 390 is “about the thousands of people around the state that have to deal with this sort of thing all the time,” Setzler said. “You have soccer moms who are teaching their kids to hate cops.”

Oh. This may be the part where Ed Setzler’s small bill becomes larger than the three pages it’s printed on.

Last year saw an escalation in the violent clashes between police officers and segments of the public they’re sworn to protect. African-American males in particular feel targeted. Law enforcement officers feel that same way, and want everyone to know that blue lives matter, too.

Two weeks ago, our state Senate sided with the thin blue line. Senate Bill 160, sponsored by Tyler Harper, a Republican from Ocilla, was dubbed the “Back the Badge Act.

The measure, passed on a vote of 40-12, would require offenders as young as 13 to be brought before a superior court judge rather than a juvenile court judge — if charged with aggravated battery of a law enforcement officer.

If convicted, the offender would face a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison. Some Democrats voted for the bill, but many didn’t. “The mandatory minimum was a problem,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “It’s one of the things that has led to mass incarcerations.”

Over the next few weeks, this same Republican Senate will now take up Setzler’s bill to take some of the sting out of encounters between drivers and police. Here’s betting that it passes.

Should HB 390 become law, you might hear some complaints that Republicans are quick enough to respond when their constituents have uncomfortable experiences with law enforcement. And that a stop-sign violation just doesn’t compare with the life-and-death situations we’ve seen play out on our cell phones.

And there’s truth in that.

But many of those confrontations we’ve seen between black drivers and police begin with a simple traffic stop. As 62 Democrats in the House no doubt recognized.

Another thing: Here’s a secret that the Black Lives Matters movement might take note of, because within it is an important kernel of agreement: White people — even and perhaps especially conservative Republicans — don’t like to be on the wrong end of excess authority, either.

They might experience it in smaller doses, but it still burns.

We started with a caveat, so let’s end with one, too. Setzler acknowledges that traffic enforcement isn’t just about vehicle safety. The high visibility of a patrol car is itself a deterrent to crime. Setzler also appreciates that cops have a hard job. But we also know that the broken-glass theory of law enforcement, if carried too far, hurts rather than helps.

“When you’ve got soccer moms who can conclude, ‘Police are lying in wait for me like predators, waiting for me to speed or make a right turn on red, and they have nothing better to do with their time’ — that has an impact on public sentiment toward police officers.” Setzler said. “They think, if he can do that to me, what’s he doing to people who are on the bubble of bad behavior? What the heck are they doing to them?”


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