In the fading daylight, 22 miles west of Krome Avenue, an armed, uniformed Miccosukee security officer idled inside a white SUV just south of the state road that knifes though the vast Everglades.
He stopped each car that turned onto Loop Road, a picturesque, partially paved path that winds through the three counties, past Indian homes, public campgrounds and endless wetlands.
On a recent weekday, a visitor was told the public road was off-limits after 6 p.m.
When the visitor questioned the officer’s authority to restrict a public road, the officer issued a warning: Stay out of the tribal homes that belong to the Miccosukee reservation south of the road.
For tourists and visitors heading to the Big Cypress Preserve and the few residents along Loop Road, the Miccosukee checkpoint — which critics say infringes on the right to traverse a public road — has become an accepted headache.
But the continued checkpoints again have come to the attention of state authorities, who have had squabbles in the past with the tribe and its police department over questions of whether they are overstepping their bounds.
The checkpoints took an added twist less than two months ago: Miccosukee police handed over responsibility to uniformed, armed, private security guards. While they don’t have sworn law-enforcement training, to the casual visitor they look like police. The uniformed officers — who wear silver Miccosukee badges and wield side arms — also patrol the tribe’s resort casino.
“It’s one of our most scenic views of the Everglades, and the checkpoint is violating the constitutional rights of our residents and tourists that come and visit us,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said. “The Miccosukee Tribe knows this.”
The tribe and its lawyer did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Miami Herald.
Prosecutors recently reached out to Miami-Dade County Hall, which will ask the county police department to contact Miccosukee police informally with their concerns, according to Deputy Mayor Genaro “Chip” Iglesias.
“Our first step is to speak to them, see if that corrects the situation,” Iglesias said. “If that doesn’t work, then we’ll have to step it up and formally notify them that they can’t deny people access to the road.”
The interest by state authorities comes at a sensitive time for the West Miami-Dade tribe, which operates a lucrative gambling resort off Tamiami Trail and Krome Avenue.
Last month, the tribe fired its police chief, Bobby Richardson, who said the department suffers from low morale and understaffing. The department has gone through a string of police chiefs since 2007. In one purge in August 2011, the department fired its interim chief and seven officers after the rank and file signed a petition protesting one sergeant’s behavior.
Federal courts have also ordered the Miccosukees to turn over financial records on gambling proceeds for which the tribe is believed to owe millions of dollars in taxes. The tribe is suing its former lawyers, accusing them of malpractice in dealing with their finances.
The Miccosukees also are embroiled in legal fight with the county over federal efforts to designate its West Kendall golf course part of the tribe’s federally protected reserve.