Innocent caught in web of cops' overtime abuse

 

There's a human toll to the abuse: In some cases, innocent people get arrested and guilty people go free. By any standard, Gustavo Suarez was not drunk the night that police stopped him in Miami Beach. Suarez's breath-alcohol level tested far below the legal limit, his driving was not erratic, his urine showed no evidence of drugs. But police arrested him for drunk driving anyway. Seven cops claimed to be witnesses. They were Collars for Dollars cops: police officers who pile on to cases, earning overtime money they don't deserve by making unnecessary court appearances. An eight-month Herald investigation documented Collars for Dollars abuse among hundreds of officers in thousands of cases, costing Dade taxpayers millions of dollars. There's more at stake than wasted money. In some cases, The Herald found, the zeal to make DUI arrests can put innocent people behind bars and allow guilty people to go free. "I have no doubt that a signifi cant number of drivers are arrested in Dade County simply because law enforcement officers are looking to profit financially and not because they believe the person is impaired, " said Richard Essen, a top DUI defense lawyer. Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto said he doesn't believe officers are targeting innocent drivers. "I don't think they're arresting people who aren't impaired, " he said. "But they are encouraged to stop people more than they would ordinarily." But consider what happened to Mark Faber, arrested in a DUI roadblock in 1995, even though he was perfectly sober and had not used drugs. As he sat in a mobile police trailer, awaiting his paddy wagon ride to jail, he said the cops were giving each other high-fives. "They were talking about how much overtime they were getting, " said Faber, a 30-year-old Miami Beach proofreader. "They were cheering." Innocent people can end up in jail because passing the breath test for alcohol is not enough to avoid a DUI charge. If police still suspect drivers are impaired, they arrest them for DUI anyway. Then they ask for a drug test, which requires a urine sample. And it takes weeks to get the lab results. Although the number of drivers who are unfairly charged is a small percentage of the total, it is still significant. The Herald found 520 drivers arrested for DUI who blew below .05, the level at which drivers are presumed innocent of driving under the influence. And 53 percent of those cases were dropped. Police officers blame problems at the lab in 1995. "You'd have people admit to doing drugs and it would come back no drugs detected, " said Miami Beach Officer Robert Jenkins. "How do you explain that?" But the lab has improved its tests. And innocent people still get arrested. Martin In January, Claudia Martin was charged with DUI after a car accident. Six Miami police officers were listed as witnesses. The arresting officer wrote in his report that the effects of alcohol on the 28-year-old woman were "obvious." He said he smelled alcohol on her breath. "He said, 'You're drinking, you're drinking, ' " Martin said. She wasn't. She blew zeroes, yet went to jail overnight. Her urine tested free of drugs. "It was a very bad experience, " she said. In a random sample, The Herald found 26 cases in which no drugs were detected in drivers arrested on DUI charges. Their personal stories reveal the human toll. They are jailed overnight, but that is just the beginning. Many spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to clear their records and hundreds of dollars just to get their cars back from the police. Some even pay for independent drug tests. Motivated by money

Mark Steiner was nabbed in a Coconut Grove roadblock in 1995. Seven cops claimed to be witnesses. Steiner blew zeroes and his urine eventually came back clean. He was taking antibiotics, which he said dilated his pupils. "They kept telling me, 'Why don't you just tell us you've been smoking pot and get this over with?' " recalled Steiner, a 30-year-old Palm Beach County salesman. "I didn't think there was much point in me trying to change their opinion." County Court Judge Wendell Graham, who has been hearing DUI cases for two years, said he is outraged when defendants appear before him with a low breath reading and a urine sample that shows no drugs. "It's horrendous, " Graham said. "I think in some of the marginal cases, something else needs to be done besides arrest." The judge said some of the cops are motivated by money. "I've heard defendants in a good two trials, they quoted officers as saying, 'Now watch this, Joe, this is how to make some extra bucks.' And people go, 'Yeah, right.' But I listen to defendants, " Graham said. "People tend to disparage defendants just because they've been charged. But these are by and large good people -- white collar, blue collar, no collar -- who drink too much and drive. Sometimes they say things that make your ears perk up." Police piggybacking on drunk driving cases also puts drunk drivers back on the road. For instance, The Herald found 32 cases in which drivers who had been arrested on DUI charges by Collars for Dollars cops went free because their cases were dropped -- but each was later convicted of drunk driving in another case. More is less

The cops sign on to cases in which they have little or no involvement, knowing that if their name appears in the drunk driving paperwork, it could mean extra money in their paychecks. But the more police witnesses, the less likely the defendant will be convicted, The Herald found in a study of Metro-Dade, Miami and Miami Beach DUI cases. A person accused of drunk driving is 38 percent more likely to walk free in a case with at least seven cops than in a case with fewer than four. The more cops, the more chances for officers to miss important court appearances, which often leads to cases being dismissed. The Herald also found that when there are more cops, there are more chances for defense attorneys to elicit conflicting testimony -- and sometimes outright lies -- before a jury. The cops make so many cases that they are often subpoenaed to more than one courtroom at a time. If they are not in the courtroom when their name is called, the defendant can go free. It happens often, Miami Beach Officer John Corley said in a sworn statement. "State attorney upset. Defendant happy. He gets to go home." These are the stories of drivers who were arrested by Collars for Dollars cops. Some were sober. Others were intoxicated. THE CASE OF THE RED EYES

Suarez Gustavo Suarez was on his way home, a small, half-empty bottle of Night Train wine in his red Camaro, when Miami Beach Police Officer Mark Causey stopped him in 1995. Causey said he could not see the car's temporary license tag. Causey wrote in a police report that Suarez had a "strong odor of alcoholic beverage." But Suarez, then a 20-year-old Winn-Dixie stock clerk who worked at night, said he had drunk only a little, earlier that evening. Soon there were four officers, including a sergeant, on the scene. Two were state-certified as DUI experts. They gave Suarez a roadside sobriety test and determined he was impaired. It was 3 a.m. "That day I was really tired. My eyes were really red, " Suarez said. The red eyes were enough to get him arrested. At the station, Suarez blew .013, well below the legal limit. "When I blew in the little machine, he saw I didn't drink, " Suarez said of the cop who gave him the breath test. "Then he told me the only thing I can do for you now is when you go to court, I'll testify for you." Eventually, seven officers signed on to the case. "There should be no reason why they're all on there, " Miami Beach Chief Barreto said. But he defended the arrest, saying the bottle of wine gave his officers probable cause to charge Suarez. When Suarez's urine sample came back with "no drugs detected, " prosecutors decided to drop the case. "Call off officers, " the file states. A memo went to the Miami Beach Police Department, saying the officers were "NOT" needed in court. Four showed up anyway, costing taxpayers about $368. THE SPEEDING BLUE CONVERTIBLE

Dennys Astorga had been partying at the Cameo in South Beach the night he encountered Miami Beach police. A boat mechanic, he was nearing the end of a probation term for grand theft. He was driving a blue convertible Corvette, its top down. Officer Gary Aime and Sgt. Louis Fata caught up with him on Pinetree Drive after a bulletin went out over the radio: Watch out for a speeding blue Corvette driving erratically. Fata said Astorga was fishtailing as he drove. "I got behind him. Nothing, " he said. "He finally pulls over." Aime wrote that Astorga smelled strongly of alcohol, that he "staggered" as he left his car and was "unsteady on his feet." Two more officers arrived and gave the roadside sobriety tests, the police report states. Astorga does not recall four officers on the scene. "Another car came and said, 'Are you all right?' The other guy said, 'Don't worry, I've got it, ' and the other guy left, " Astorga said. At the station, Astorga took the breath tests. He blew .051 and .048 -- below the legal limit of .08. "When I blew, I said, 'I'm not drunk, ' " Astorga said. "They said, 'It can't be.' I said, 'I'm naturally like this. I had a drink and I'm happy.' " 'A lot of names'

He didn't stay happy for long. He gave a urine sample, which would later come back clean. But he spent the night in jail. "If you blow under the state limit, they should let you go, " he said. Nine Beach cops claimed to have a part in the case. Fata could not explain why so many names were listed. "There are a lot of names here, " he said. When the case went to court, Astorga decided to represent himself. He and his girlfriend said they saw a group of Miami Beach officers in the courtroom, all on overtime for his case. "I guarantee you if you showed them a picture of me now, they wouldn't know who I was. When I was in court, I heard them saying, 'Who is it? Who is it?' The one who arrested me said, 'It's that one, it's that one.' " Astorga agreed to plead no contest to reckless driving. The state dropped the drunk driving charge. But the court relief was too little, too late. The DUI arrest had triggered a probation violation on an earlier case. Astorga ended up in the Broward County Jail, where he sat for nine days until he got a hearing. "I had to sit in jail for no reason at all, " he said. THE ROADBLOCK AND THE GLADIATORS

Mark Faber was driving home from a Chinese restaurant when he stopped at a DUI checkpoint in Miami Shores. The license tag on his 1980 Lincoln had expired. He and a friend, a former rabbi, were in the car. Faber explained to a Florida Highway Patrol trooper that he hadn't renewed his tag because he was having money problems. But the trooper decided that Faber seemed nervous -- "rapidly answering questions, volunteering unnecessary information" -- so he asked him to get out of the car. Two other officers, including a Miami police sergeant, gave him a roadside sobriety test. During the test, the cops told Faber not to look up at them. But Faber briefly did. "I remember being very curious about what they were thinking. I looked up at them." One of the reasons Faber failed the roadside: He did not look at his feet the entire time. "To me, that says they're grasping at straws to find me drunk or impaired in some way, " Faber said. The police took Faber to a mobile trailer, where he blew zeroes. "They couldn't let go of me. They were saying, 'We could arrest you for having your license tag expired.' They kept asking me, 'Mark, when was the last time you smoked marijuana? . . . Mark, do you do crack? Mark, are you on heroin?' " His rabbi friend, meanwhile, watched as the police used two drug dogs to search the Lincoln. They found nothing. "It was very much a police state. I was helpless in that situation, " Faber said. "I said: 'Why can't I just pee in a cup? The tests could tell you I'm not on any substances, and I could go.' " The cops continued testing him, turning the lights on and off, peering into his eyes. "They would say, 'Definitely, he's on drugs, definitely, he's on drugs. We got him now, ' " Faber said. "They were like Roman gladiators." Faber heard something else. "They were talking about their overtime like crazy. That was like a big morale booster." After 20 hours in jail, Faber was released. He immediately got an independent drug test to prove his innocence and spent $1,500 to hire a lawyer. The case was dismissed. "I would like that this doesn't happen to other people, " Faber said. "That's my burning desire." Johnson A LUCKY BREAK FOR A DEFENDANT

One month after his third DUI conviction, Lovell Johnson was arrested again for drunk driving. He faced a mandatory jail term, but was sentenced to house arrest instead. The reason: Johnson was arrested by Collars for Dollars cops. Seven Metro-Dade officers participated in the case. Four did little or nothing. Metro-Dade Officer Ignacio Alvarez spotted Johnson swerving and driving on the wrong side of the road on Northwest 191st Street on Feb. 25, 1995. Johnson was driving with a suspended license. He smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes. He slurred when he spoke. Alvarez gave Johnson a roadside sobriety test. At the Miami Lakes substation, Officer Joseph Meyer asked Johnson to take a breath test. He refused. The case entered Dade's clogged court system, a system made worse by Collars for Dollars. Three times, Johnson's case was set for trial. Each time, it was postponed. Each time, some of the seven cops appeared, earning overtime money. The fourth time, Officer Meyer did not show up. Alvarez did, but he could not remember the case. Without Meyer and with Alvarez's faulty memory, the prosecutor could not seek the maximum penalty. Instead of jail, Johnson was sentenced to 270 hours of house arrest and lost his license for life. Taxpayers paid $809 in overtime to the officers. THE LUCK RUNS OUT -- AND A LESSON LEARNED

Whelan When it comes to DUIs, Julie Whelan knows the system. She lost her license in 1984 for drunk driving. But she got luckier in 1995. The state dismissed another DUI charge because the cops didn't show up. And then last year, she encountered seven Miami Beach police officers, four who had no essential role in the case. She was speeding in a green Datsun on Pinetree Drive. Officer Jamie Rezzonico said she nearly crashed. When she got out of the car, she seemed drunk. Another officer gave a roadside test. Two sergeants appeared on the scene. So did a field training officer, with a rookie in tow. "They just showed up. I don't know what they were doing. First one, then a whole bunch of them, " Whelan said. Two of the officers drove Whelan to the station, where she refused a breath test from Officer Guillermo Berrier. Twice, the case was set for trial. The second time, none of the officers were around when the judge called the case. The prosecutor beeped the cops, but it was too late. The judge dismissed the charges. Five of the cops, however, were somewhere in the courthouse. Their overtime cost about $907. The state refiled the charges, but the case was dismissed again. By then, Whelan had been caught drunk and behind the wheel again. This time, the 40-year-old Bal Harbour woman encountered three Metro-Dade police officers. She was convicted and lost her license for a year. Today, she has learned her lesson. "I think people shouldn't drink and drive, " she said. THE ENGINEER MISCALCULATES

Pryor Rosser Pryor, a Georgia engineer, was on a business trip to Miami Beach. He figured that because he was overweight, it was safe to drink six beers in a five-hour period and still drive. "I'm an engineer. I know how to calculate things. My wife gives to MADD. My attitude is it's illegal to drive drunk. It's not illegal to drive after a few drinks." But on a June night in 1995, Pryor miscalculated. He was driving a rental car in South Beach when he saw three police cars parked outside a club. They were Collars for Dollars cops on a traffic stop. "I steered to the left to avoid the cops at the side of the road, " he said. The cops claimed he was driving recklessly. They pulled him over, asked him to do a roadside test and decided he was impaired. At the police station, Pryor took the breath test. He blew a .122, over the legal limit. He won his case anyway. He could thank the five Collars for Dollars cops who eventually piled on to the case. Questioned by Pryor's lawyer, Officer David Williams admitted that he could not remember any details of the roadside test that he conducted. So the judge threw out the arrest. The arresting officer, Mario Rojo, could have done the test himself. He had eight years of experience doing DUI arrests. "Had Officer Williams not been there, would you have done the roadsides?" attorney Jose Fernandez asked Rojo. "I would have done them, " Rojo responded. The victory was hollow. Pryor said he spent $5,000 on legal fees and had to fly to Miami four times, once each time the case was set for trial. The police earned $936 in overtime pay. "It was bad police work, " Pryor said. "Having that many didn't help their case. It gave me an opportunity."

Herald Research Editor Dan Keating contributed to this report.

BEER, LIES AND OVERTIME PAY SIX METRO-DADE COPS UNECESSARILY SPLIT THE POLICE WORK IN THE CASE WHEN HIALEAH COMPUTER PROGRAMMER ANDRES GONZALEZ WAS ARRESTED LAST DECEMBER FOR DRUNK DRIVING. GONZALEZ, 35, HAD DOWNED FIVE CORONA BEERS, REGISTERING .141 AND .152 ON THE BREATH-ALCOHOL TESTS. A JURY ACQUITTED GONZALEZ IN APRIL AFTER TWO OF THE OFFICERS TOLD DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT STORIES ON THE WITNESS STAND ABOUT THE CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO HIS ARREST. THEIR POSSIBLE MOTIVATION, ACCORDING TO GONZALEZ'S LAWYER: EARNING OVERTIME PAY.

THE POLICE REPORTOfficer Sanabria wrote the police report. It said that Officer David Graham saw Gonzalez -- known in police parlance as the defendant -- "urinating in the parking lot. When Graham approached the man, he "jumped into his vehicle and sped away" almost hitting other cars in the lot. The defendant wasn't stopped until Graham "utilized his emergency equipment." THE TRIAL When the Gonzalez case went to trial, Officer Graham denied that he ever told Sanabria that Gonzalez "sped through the parking lot" or that he "almost struck other vehicles in the parking lot." He said he didn't write the arrest form. But Officer Sanabria told a different story when he testified. He said he wrote the arrest narrative, which included the incident about the speeding car in the parking lot. "This is all from what Officer Graham told me, " he said. THE DEFENDANT "I didn't even get inside the car. I urinated on the parking lot. I should have gotten a ticket for that. But if you're urinating, how can you drive? You'd urinate inside the car.....They were lying." THE JUDGECounty Court Judge Wendell Graham "Completely different testimony between one officer and the other, and the jury saw that. Juries are great. I love jury trials. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they come to the right conclusion." THE OVERTIME The Collars for Dollars cops earned $929 in overtime pay for their work in the case. Told of the different accounts offered by his officers under oath, Metro-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez said he was going to refer the incident to internal affairs. "The whole scenario is inappropriate. It's very bothersome, " he said.

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