On the evening of June 19, Orlando police pulled over a white Ford Fusion with tinted windows. Inside was Aramis Ayala, Florida’s first and only African American state attorney — a fact that the two officers who stopped her apparently didn’t know.
As one officer approaches Ayala’s car, she already has her driver’s license in her hands, according to body-camera footage of the traffic stop.
“What agency are you with?” the officer asks Ayala as he examines her license.
“I’m a state attorney,” she responds.
“State attorney,” the officer says quickly, appearing to bring the traffic stop to an abrupt end. “Alright, thank you. Your tag didn’t come back. Never seen that before. … We’re good now.”
Ayala appears confused, prompting the officer to explain further that they had run her Florida license plate tag and that it had returned nothing.
Ayala presses him: “What was the tag run for?”
“Oh, we run tags all the time,” the officer says. “That’s how we figure out if, you know, cars are stolen and that sort of thing. Also, the windows were really dark. I don’t have a tint measure, but that’s another reason for the stop.”
After mention of the dark windows, Ayala smiles slightly and asks for the officers’ business cards.
Although the incident occurred last month, it has attracted scrutiny over the past week after local media outlets published body-camera footage of the stop and questioned whether Ayala was racially profiled.
“Being one of the most recognizable state attorneys in Florida didn’t prevent” the state attorney “from being a victim of racial profiling by Orlando Police,” Florida National News wrote, before proceeding to outline “five major things wrong with this traffic stop.”
Shaun King, a writer for the New York Daily News and an outspoken civil rights activist, shared the video on his social media accounts Tuesday, where they racked up hundreds of thousands of views and sparked further discussion about the incident.
“Aramis Ayala is Florida’s first and only African American state’s attorney — making her one of the most powerful and influential figures in their justice system,” King wrote on Facebook. “That didn’t stop police from pulling her over for no reason whatsoever, then struggling to explain themselves.”
The Orlando Police Department defended the stop as lawful and noted that patrol officers routinely run tags “for official business only.”
“As you can see in the video, the window tint was dark, and officers would not have been able to tell who, or how many people, were in the vehicle,” the department said in a statement. “No complaint has been filed in reference to this traffic stop.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Ayala agreed that the traffic stop — which took place on her way back from teaching a class at Florida A&M University College of Law — appeared to be “consistent with Florida law” but said she hoped to discuss the incident with Orlando police.
She also said there had been a “flood of misinformation” ever since a public-records request prompted the video’s release and denied that she had filed a lawsuit related to the traffic stop.
“To be clear, I violated no laws. The license plate, while confidential, was and remains properly registered. The tint was in no way a violation of Florida law,” Ayala said in her statement.
“My goal is to have a constructive and mutually respectful relationship between law enforcement and the community. I look forward to sitting down to have an open dialogue with the Chief of Orlando Police Department regarding how this incident impacts that goal.”
Pinellas Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Spencer Gross told the Tampa Bay Times that checking tags during patrols was “a valuable tool in law enforcement.”
Ayala is the state attorney for the 9th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, which includes Orange and Osceola counties. Her election in November made her the first African American state attorney in Florida history.
In March, Ayala caused a stir by announcing that she would no longer seek the death penalty in cases handled by her office, prompting Gov. Rick Scott (R) to reassign all of Ayala’s murder cases to another prosecutor. The dispute reached the Florida Supreme Court last month.
“I have given this issue extensive and painstaking thought and consideration,” Ayala said at a news conference in March. “What has become abundantly clear through this process is that, while I currently do have discretion to pursue death sentences, I have determined that doing so is not in the best interest of this community or in the best interest of justice.”