It was not an explicit directive nor was it written in any official documents.
However, Sweetwater police officers knew what was expected of them when they patrolled the streets of this small city in west Miami-Dade.
They were to arrest the highest number possible of suspects in order to tow their vehicles, even if the towing had no connection to the alleged crime.
Towing represented a lucrative business for the city.
Sweetwater depended on the $500 administrative fine it collected from people recovering their vehicles. In fact, the city had set a yearly goal of $168,000 of these fines under the category of “miscellaneous revenue” in its police budget.
And the company, Southland The Towing Company, was partly owned by former Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño for quite awhile — although many officers apparently had no knowledge of that.
Arresting, then towing became the norm in Sweetwater, according to several officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Figures show 37 percent of all arrests in Sweetwater last year resulted in towing.
An analysis by El Nuevo Herald of the more than 460 arrests involving towing in 2012 found several trends. Among them:
• Two-thirds of the arrests were for traffic violations, including driving with a suspended license or without a license. In cases of criminal charges, 77 percent ended up dismissed by the state attorney’s office or a judge. Some 11 percent led to criminal convictions.
• One in four arrests with towing took place at the Dolphin Mall, a shopping center annexed into Sweetwater in 2010. That same year, Southland obtained the monopoly to operate in the city. Although the majority of the Dolphin Mall arrests occurred in the parking lot, the arresting officers did not allow subjects to leave their vehicles there. Even in the cases of shoplifting inside the stores, officers apparently went outside to the parking lot to search for the subjects’ vehicles to tow.
• The suspects usually had limited incomes and could not afford the $500 fine the city charged, in addition to the storage fee they had to pay Southland to get their vehicle back. Nearly one-third of the arrests were unemployed people, while 35 percent said they were workers or students. Many drove popular cars, like Nissan Altimas and Honda Civics, which were a majority of the cars towed by Southland.
• In 40 percent of the cases — most of which were for driving without a license or for possession of marijuana — officers released the suspects with a "promise to appear in court." Typically, charges were dropped before a public defender was assigned to the case.
“This is how things lead to so many unjustified arrests for misdemeanors that avoid an examination by a lawyer,” said Carlos Martínez, Miami-Dade’s public defender. “These people had no defense.”
The Towing Business
Over the past few months, federal authorities have intensified an investigation of the relationship between Maroño, Southland and Sweetwater Police, as well as the abusive behavior of some officers against residents.
Maroño had been one of the owners of the company until the middle of 2009, according to state records, though sources familiar with the case have said that he remained as a silent partner in the business.
Despite its link to Maroño, Southland began to operate in Sweetwater on a rotation, months before its name ceased to appear in state registers. The agreement between the city and Southland was never formalized into an official contract.
No one has been charged in the case so far. The feds arrested Maroño in August in an unrelated case of public corruption. And Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira retired two months later.
The city’s new leadership has severed the links with Southland and is in the process of creating a public bidding system for the towing contract business.
Fulgueira did not respond messages from El Nuevo Herald this week. Armando Rosquete, Maroño’s attorney, said that he could not comment about his client’s role in the towing business.
Sweetwater’s new police chief, Jesús Menocal took over on Oct. 24. He has already instructed officers on when towing is justified in an arrest. Since he assumed his post, there have been only seven arrests in which towing was justified.
This number represents less than 10 percent of what was previously considered normal in the city.
“I cannot justify what happened in the previous administration, but I want to make clear that we are not in the towing business,” Menocal said. “And we don’t want to steal vehicles from people, confiscate their titles or receive money from that company.”
Over the past several months, El Nuevo Herald and CBS-4 have obtained hundreds of documents from Sweetwater during the past decade on arrest reports, towing activity and receipts for the $500 administrative fine.
El Nuevo Herald created a database with the 2012 documents and combined that with information from court cases to make its analysis of how things were run in the city.
The records are incomplete. Sweetwater’s police department could not find nearly a quarter of the arrest reports linked to towing. A few cases, such as the confiscation of a Porsche Panamera that ended up becoming the property of Southland, have disappeared from city records.
However, cases with complete records show a clear and disturbing pattern. In many cases, police called the towing company even when the vehicles were legally parked or when passengers had valid licenses.
“I could not understand why this happened,” said Christopher Lam, whose 2000 Mercury Cougar was towed after his arrest in the parking lot of an apartment complex in his neighborhood for having a marijuana cigarette in the car — though he says that it didn’t belong to him.
“They told me I had to take my belongings out of the trunk and that, instead of going to jail, I could sign a paper and walk home, but that they would take the car.”
Instead of allowing him to park the car, or have his passenger drive it away, police insisted on calling Southland.
Lam, 23, had to walk home and ended up paying more than $2,000 to Southland to recover his car a few weeks later. He had to borrow the money.
In another case, the police arrested a woman who had just parked in front of her parents’ home in a trailer park. She was accused of driving with a suspended license.
“It seems that they could have taken me and leave the car there,” said Mirtha, who did not want her last name used. “My car was legally parked in front of the house.”
That was also the case of Moisés Robaina, arrested while having coffee in his Nissan Rogue in the parking lot of the cafeteria where his former girlfriend worked. Officers accused him of threatening and harassing the woman.
“I begged them several times to let my father drive the car and he lived only two blocks from there,” he said. “But the officer yelled at me, saying no, that the car could not be touched.”
The case against Robaina was dismissed, but he had to pay nearly $1,700 to Southland and the city to recover his vehicle.
Procedures in Miami
Sweetwater’s unwritten towing rules would not be considered justified in other cities where there are clear directives about towing during an arrest.
In Miami, towing could only be called when the vehicle can be considered evidence, as in a case of vehicle manslaughter, said Juancarlo Erigoyen, the officer in charge of towing cases. In the rest of the cases, police allowed suspects to leave the car with a passenger — if that person has a valid driver’s license — or park it in a safe place.
“If we have to arrest someone and there is a place where the car can be parked, then we ask the suspect to sign a document agreeing to leave the car there,” Erigoyen said.
Not everyone whose car was towed after an arrest in Sweetwater paid the fine to recover it.
In dozens of cases — particularly when a woman came to recover her car or the car of one of her children or her husband — the fine was annulled. Deputy chief Roberto Ochoa, who approved some of those cancellations, said that he made that decision when he happened to hear someone complaining and he had the opportunity to review the case.
An Absurd Arrest
In at least one case, then Chief Fulgueira himself refunded the $500 when a person threatened to file a lawsuit.
Christopher Aymerich was arrested for not having the telephone number on his pickup truck of the company that cleaned home sewers. He spent a night in jail. On the following day, he paid the $500 fine to the city and another $420 to Southland. Aymerich said he thought the arrest was absurd, but did not want to complain to police.
However, his wife was furious and wrote a long letter of complaint to Fulgueira.
“She wrote him that the arrest didn’t make any sense, that they were stealing money from working people,”Aymerich said. “And three days later, the police chief himself called me saying he was sorry, that there had been a mistake and that the $500 would be returned.”
Making good on his promise, Fulgueira personally returned the money, in cash , Aymerich said.
The chief apologized and asked Aymerich to“forget everything,” Aymerich said. “It seemed that he was afraid.”