Cops call it "Collars for Dollars." It's how they turn arrests on the streets into money in their pockets. Until now, it has been a courthouse secret.
It works like this: Police list each other as witnesses in drunk driving and misdemeanor cases even if they did little or no police work. Then they all get to go to court, where they make overtime they don't deserve. "That is stealing, " said former Miami Police Capt. Nate Harris, who tried unsuccessfully to stop it in his department two years ago. "It's embezzlement, is what it is." An eight-month Miami Herald investigation documented Collars for Dollars abuse involving hundreds of officers in thousands of cases. It happens so often that it costs Dade County taxpayers millions. It burdens the courthouse with thousands of unnecessary witnesses, leads to lost cases and even traps some innocent people. Dade County Judge Wendell Graham likens it to "some form of racketeering." "It's an organized decision to line their pockets with more money, " Graham told The Herald. "And they're unnecessarily expending public time and money to do that. I could see how a prosecutor could find this conduct not only offensive, but criminal." Prosecutors let police get away with it. "Could we have done a better job of policing what the police were doing?" said Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. "Clearly, we could have. But they certainly could have, too." Police have various names for their private cash machine. Piggybacking. Piling on. Stacking. Or drive-bys and waves, for the officers who merely drive by and wave and get added to the arrest report. "To be honest with you, this is a game with the officers, " said Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto. "If they can get on that DUI train, they will do it." It appears to be unique to the Miami area. The Herald could not find another city where it happens. Not every cop does it. The worst offenders are midnight shift patrol officers, who can make an extra $25,000 a year in court overtime. Cops say their motivation is not money. They just want to get drunks off the road. "There are a lot of subtle ways an individual can use to piggyback, " Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw said. "But the vast majority of our officers do not abuse the overtime system." The extent of abuse To document the extent of Collars for Dollars abuse, The Herald reviewed hundreds of case files and did a computer analysis of Metro-Dade, Miami and Miami Beach officers subpoenaed to court from 1994 through 1996. The findings: * In 6,445 misdemeanor DUI cases, five or more officers appeared as witnesses -- even though police and prosecutors concede three officers at most are needed to make a routine DUI case. * The Herald documented 536 instances where officers were listed as witnesses despite doing little or no police work. An additional 747 unnecessary witnesses were created when officers split up DUI roadside and breath-test work. * Specially trained police officers, certified by the state to do DUI testing, let other cops help them out. In 1,321 cases, four or more of these certified officers were listed in a case. * When officers don't make money for going to court, they don't pile on to cases. Florida Highway Patrol troopers, who get days off instead of overtime for going to court, were 100 times less likely than Metro, Miami or Miami Beach to need five or more to make a DUI case. * In 128 misdemeanor prostitution cases, six or more Miami police officers were listed as witnesses. The testimony of only one is necessary to prosecute. * A simple DUI arrest can cost taxpayers as much as $5,400 in overtime. A night of prostitution arrests: $7,500. Those numbers shocked Chief Warshaw. "There's something very wrong, " he said. Signs unrecognized You may have seen Collars for Dollars abuse on the streets, but you probably didn't recognize it. A patrol car, lights flashing, stops a weaving driver on Collins Avenue. A second police car arrives. Then another. Soon, there's a crowd of cops. "There was a bunch of them. I couldn't count how many, " said Kent Barding, a Pompano Beach man arrested by eight cops for drunk driving in Miami Beach in 1995. "One officer gave me the sobriety test. All the rest were just standing around talking and doing what-not." The cash machine is run by police cliques. Friends with friends, husbands with wives, boyfriends with girlfriends. City and county officers with state highway patrol troopers. They hear the call on the police radio and gather at DUI stops. Some page each other. "What I found was once a DUI was stopped, it 'killed' four or five officers, " said retired Metro-Dade Police Maj. Donald Matthews, who transferred two officers for overtime abuse a few years ago. "They would go to the scene like it was sugar, and for the rest of the shift, we wouldn't get any work out of them." It's the police spin on the old light bulb joke: How many officers does it take to make a simple drunk driving arrest? Would you believe 13? How many to arrest a single prostitute? Would you believe nine? Role of prosecutors The prosecutors make it easier for officers to beat the system. Here's how: Any officer on the scene gets listed as a witness in the arrest report, even those who do no work. Some officers show up to back up their fellow officers. Others arrive to make money, knowing they will eventually be subpoenaed to court. At the station, officers give DUI tests and arrest warnings, which must be witnessed by other officers. At the Dade State Attorney's Office, secretaries read the reports and compile witness lists to give to defense attorneys, as required by law. Any officer named in the paperwork goes on the list. In felony cases, prosecutors scrutinize the lists and screen out non-essential witnesses, making sure they do not get subpoenaed. The prosecutors don't screen DUIs and other misdemeanors because they say they are too busy. So every officer goes to court every time the case comes up, even the unnecessary officers. "They don't need those people, " said Michael Cohen, a defense attorney and former chief DUI prosecutor. "The law does not require them to subpoena them. The law requires them to list them. The answer is for the state to go over the cases more carefully." Not much of an obstacle But prosecutors do little to stop Collars for Dollars. They are reluctant to antagonize the police they work with. Instead, frustrated prosecutors write blunt notes in the files. Next to an officer's name: "Did Nothing -- Not Needed." On a pretrial preparation sheet: "Ten extra useless officers." Assistant State Attorney Isis Perez, who supervises DUI cases, said prosecutors have so many cases they can't police the police. When Perez prosecuted DUIs, she found officers subpoenaed in cases where they did nothing. "I'd say, 'Wait, what did you do?' They'd say, 'I didn't do anything on the case, ' " Perez said. "Then you would try to remember to delete them." It isn't easy. Once officers get listed in the prosecutor's subpoena database, they cannot easily be removed. To stop an unnecessary appearance, a secretary has to pluck the subpoena out of a stack of hundreds of papers. One sergeant told The Herald he was listed and subpoenaed in cases where he did nothing more than sign a police report. He says he told prosecutors but nothing was done about it. "I'd say, 'Please remove me from the witness list, ' " Miami Beach Sgt. Louis Fata said. "But they'd never remove me. Three months later, I'd get subpoenaed again." Police defend actions The police say the Collars for Dollars charge is unfair. "We're kind of caught between a rock and a hard spot, " said John Rivera, president of the Police Benevolent Association in Dade, which represents Metro-Dade police. "If police officers do not list other officers, then they get attacked by the defense. On the other hand, if you list everybody, then we're being accused of trying to do something inappropriate to make extra money." But others are troubled by the idea that police seek to profit from DUI arrests. "It's disturbing to see this kind of abuse of the system, because it hurts everybody all the way around, " said Susan Isenberg, president of the Dade County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. "What's really happened is it's just been something they've been doing for years. It's a habit they've fallen into, a bad habit." Collars for Dollars doesn't just cost money. It helps the guilty go free. "This is good for defense lawyers, " Miami defense attorney Richard Essen said. "The cops hurt the state's case by multiplying the number of witnesses that now become necessary to show up. It's very much to the defendant's advantage. Because if the cops don't show up, we win the case." A case in point That's what happened to Jorge Guardado, a 62-year-old laborer, arrested on a DUI charge after blowing .265 on the breath-alcohol test, more than three times the legal limit. The case was dropped after four officers failed to appear for his trial. That is not an isolated incident. A Herald computer analysis of the 24,800 DUI cases filed in Dade from 1994 through 1996 found that the conviction rate dropped steadily as the number of police witnesses rose in a case. "I've seen cases lost because witness-officers didn't show, " said Metro-Dade Police Sgt. Jose Zarraga, a veteran DUI officer. "That puts a burden on the state." While the guilty walk, the innocent can get arrested. Like Cedric Morrison, then a junior at Coral Gables Senior High School. He was on his way home from a friend's house when he was stopped at a Coconut Grove roadblock in 1995. It was a Friday night, right after midterms. His eyes were red. To the Miami police officer who stopped the car, that was enough. "He asked me, 'Have you been smoking anything tonight or drinking?' " Morrison recalled in an interview. "I said, 'No, I haven't.' He said, 'Wrong answer. Tell me again.' " Morrison was telling the truth, but the police arrested him anyway. They suspected he had been smoking marijuana. He hadn't. He blew zeroes on the breath-alcohol test. And several weeks later, his urine test came back clean of drugs. Ten police officers were subpoenaed to court twice before the case was finally dropped. Today Morrison carries a note from his doctor saying he has a condition that often leaves him with dry, bloodshot eyes and enlarged pupils. Many cases dropped The Herald found 520 cases in which defendants charged with drunk driving blew below .050 -- the level at which drivers are presumed innocent of drunk driving. Police arrested them on the suspicion they were impaired by drugs. But 53 percent of those cases ended up getting dropped. "They're grabbing everyone who has the smell of alcohol, " said George Yoss, former Dade chief prosecutor. "They're garbage arrests." The Collars for Dollars mentality ties up large numbers of officers on DUI cases who could be out on the streets protecting the public. Even the drivers stopped for drunk driving notice it. "I believe there were three cars there in a matter of minutes, " said Eli Chaimowicz, a Boca Raton acupuncture student arrested for drunk driving by seven Miami Beach cops in 1995. "Like there was nothing better to do." Police chiefs say officers often congregate at traffic stops to protect their fellow officers, especially when they stop drivers with passengers. "It's very scary doing it yourself, " said Miami Beach Officer Glenn Hodges. "You never know what a person you're arresting is going to do." Different circumstances But The Herald found police piggybacking at the station -- after the defendant was brought in for DUI testing. Officers also piggybacked at the scene on numerous cases where the driver was alone. "It's not like it was four rowdy guys, " said Jessica Broder, who was stopped for DUI in 1994. Seven cops claim to be witnesses. She was 23 years old, 5-6 and 122 pounds. "It was one little girl." The more times officers get listed on arrest forms, the more times they get to go to court, the more money they earn. When they clock in at the Dade courthouse for their overtime, police officers can sometimes be heard making the "ka-ching" sound of the cash register. "Moneymaker!" exclaimed Miami Officer Antonio Miranda as he strode through the courthouse last December. "I've been going to court on that case for two years." The Herald found that Miranda, who at the time worked at a police substation front desk, makes a lot of money from DUI arrests. He has appeared in 470 DUI cases and made more than $29,000 in court overtime in the last three years, mainly by doing DUI tests for other officers. Rules about overtime Under union rules, most night-shift cops get a minimum of three hours of overtime at time and a half -- no matter how much time they spend in court. The Herald found 85 misdemeanor cases last year in which Miami Beach cops were paid three hours of overtime for court appearances lasting 10 minutes or less. Collars for Dollars contributes to the chaos at the courthouse on Mondays and Wednesdays. So many drunk driving cases are scheduled that prosecutors have trouble keeping track of the legion of police witnesses. The officers crowd the hallways, scurrying from courtroom to courtroom. They seldom testify. Most cases are postponed or end with plea bargains or charges dismissed. But judges take hours going through them. So police leave their beeper numbers and go eat or nap. "You just give them a contact number and you wait in the Pickle Barrel Restaurant of the courthouse, or you go to the parking lot and try to sleep for four hours, " Miami Beach Police Officer Jody Glade said last year. In the rare cases in which Collars for Dollars officers testify, the scene can get comical. Assistant Public Defender Christopher Green questioning Metro-Dade Officer Ignacio Alvarez about a 1994 DUI case: Q: What was your involvement in this case? A: I have no recollection of the case at all. Q: And you've taken a look at the [arrest report]? A: Yes, I have. I don't believe I did none of the DUI work on it. The dollars add up Collars for Dollars amounts to a subtle skim, a hundred dollars a shot adding up over time. Miami Police Sgt. Jorge Morin made more than $100 for a case in which his only apparent role was notarizing an arrest form. Miami Officer William Clayton earned $987.35 for five cases in which he did nothing but walk defendants down three flights of stairs at the police department. A defense attorney asked him why he was needed. "I'm just a cog in a big machine, " said Clayton, who supplements his $40,000 annual salary with $20,000 in court overtime. It doesn't happen in the rest of the United States. The Herald found that police and prosecutors in Broward County, Pinellas County, Jacksonville, Orlando, Los Angeles, Manhattan, Dallas, Boston, Chicago, Phoenix, Portland and St. Louis all have systems in place to prevent officers from going to court and soaking up overtime. "You can't have them standing around the courthouse all day, " said Sandi Gibbons of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. Broward saves money In Broward, sheriff's deputies are put on "standby" -- called to court only when a trial is certain. As a result, Broward saves millions. The Broward Sheriff's Office will spend about $900,000 this year in total overtime costs -- both in court and on the streets -- for its patrol division. The Miami Beach Police Department, which patrols a much smaller area and processes 1,200 fewer DUI arrests, spent that much on court overtime alone last year. "You mean they just go there and sit?" Broward sheriff's spokesman Ott Cefkin said. "That's stupid." The problem has a long history in Dade. Metro-Dade Police Legal Adviser George Aylesworth said he can recall officers talking about the money they could make from DUIs when he joined the department in the 1970s. "It's something that's out of hand and out of control and hasn't been addressed by the department, " Miami Police Lt. Ken Nelson said at an obscure police disciplinary hearing in 1995. A problem at night The Herald found endemic abuse on the midnight shifts of Dade's three biggest departments. It was concentrated in the Metro-Dade Police's Doral and Miami Lakes stations, in Miami's South District Substation and on Miami Beach's midnight shift. In DUI cases, Miami Beach had the worst record. The Beach needed more officers than the other departments to make DUI arrests, listing five or more Beach officers in 45 percent of its DUI cases, compared with 35 percent for Miami and 32 percent for Metro-Dade. By contrast, the Florida Highway Patrol needed the fewest officers to make a DUI arrest -- only 0.3 percent of its cases required five or more FHP witnesses. Troopers don't get cash for appearing in court; they get compensated only with time off, while police can choose money or comp time. The police usually chose the cash. Police union leaders insist the abuse is small and has already been addressed by the departments. They say prosecutors need to do more now. 'Not all the officers' fault' "It's very easy to put all the blame on the officers, when it's not all the officers' fault, " said Tony Rodriguez, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents Miami police. Metro-Dade has done the most to correct the abuse, instituting a standby system for juvenile cases that has saved thousands of dollars. Miami and Miami Beach have issued repeated warnings and tightened their regulations. But it never seems enough. "When one door is closed, they seem to find another door to open, " said Maj. Bill O'Brien, commander of Miami's Internal Affairs unit. One reason: sergeants who are supposed to prevent the practice on the streets partake in it instead. They, too, get to go to court and earn money. The Herald identified nine sergeants who have participated in Collars for Dollars abuse. Byproduct of change? Some fear that changing the system to take the money out of DUI arrests would lead to a drop in those arrests. Already there is evidence of this. Metro-Dade's DUI arrests fell more than 47 percent in April. The reason: Officers learned of a pilot program to cut down on court appearances. Metro Police Director Carlos Alvarez said police officers are "in the wrong profession" if they seek Collars for Dollars. "If we have officers who are taking into account the dollars they're going to make out of an arrest, that is very disturbing to me, " Alvarez said. "The biggest thing you have as a police officer is integrity. If you're fudging on these types of things, then where do you draw the line?"