March 28, 2013

Miami Commission wants to confiscate ‘maquinitas,’ hire more police

Miami commissioners directed the city manager to confiscate video-gaming machines, approved an up-sizing of one of the city’s largest development projects, and asked the feds for the right to hire more cops.

A week after Miami’s mayor called the video-gaming machines he once championed “illegal,’’ city commissioners directed the administration to arrange the seizure of the 1,000 or so machines scattered across cafeterias and video arcades.

Commissioners, riding an anti-gaming wave flowing through the state legislature — which is set on making the machines illegal — said the devices are out of compliance because not a single operating permit mandated by a 2010 city ordinance has been purchased.

The elected body unanimously told City Manager Johnny Martinez to seize the machines, and urged state legislators to finally declare them illegal.

“I don’t think you can make an argument; they either have a [permit], or they don’t,’’ said Commissioner Francis Suarez, who sponsored the resolution.

Martinez said he will direct police, not code enforcement officers, to confiscate the machines because some of the seizures are likely to be accompanied by arrests. He could not provide a timetable.

“There are ongoing things that I can’t go into detail about,” Martinez told The Miami Herald, suggesting undercover police are continuing to play the machines to gather evidence for criminal gambling charges. “Also, code enforcement can’t break down doors and trample in there. We want to confiscate and there may be legal proceedings.”

Michael Wolf, an attorney who represents the video gaming industry, insisted the machines are not used for gambling, but acknowledged that the police can seize the devices if they believe they have probable cause.

“These things will get decided in court,’’ said Wolf. “Of course, all this could be moot in a week depending on what happens in Tallahassee.’’

Controversy over the popular video-gaming machines, known as “maquinitas’’ throughout Little Havana, Flagami and Hialeah, first arose in 2010 and 2011 when Mayor Tomás Regalado and Police Chief Miguel Exposito engaged in public warfare over whether the devices — the subject of murky and conflicting laws — were legal.

At Thursday’s commission meeting, Suarez called the machines “destructive,” said they entice the most vulnerable in society, and said they are linked to prostitution and organized crime.

“It’s a plague on our state, on our city,” said Suarez, who is challenging Regalado for the job of mayor in November.

The machines made headlines again two weeks ago when Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned under pressure after state investigators questioned her about consulting work she did for a charity involved in an alleged illegal gambling operation. Law officers have made 57 arrests in that case.

At the same time, the state House and Senate have matching bills rocketing through both chambers in Tallahassee that would make the video-gaming machines illegal.

In October 2010, Regalado pushed through an ordinance that passed 4-1 mandating a $500 machine permit. The goal was to identify where the machines were operating and to prop up city coffers. But Exposito confiscated hundreds of the devices and arrested their operators; his offensive put him at odds with the mayor and city manager and ultimately cost him his job.

Last week, Regalado and the city’s occupational license supervisor, Noel Chavez, revealed that not a single permit had been sold in 2½ years, making the machines “illegal.’’

City Manager Martinez said after the measure passed, he, Chief Orosa and the now-retired head of code enforcement agreed to continue targeting the maquinitas through criminal statutes enforced by police — just as Exposito had been doing — rather than through the civil permitting process. That’s why no tickets were issued to machine owners who failed to buy permits.

Orosa said since he took over from Exposito in December 2011, his officers have made four arrests and confiscated 51 gaming machines, all of which have been destroyed after being labeled “contraband’’ by the courts. The city continues to warehouse 105 machines seized during Exposito’s tenure that are still tied up in legal challenges.

Orosa said his immediate concern about seizing the costly gaming machines is how and where to store them. He said former Chief John Timoney confiscated some of them and stashed them under an Interstate 95 overpass. Later, after the courts ruled they had to be returned to their owners, the city discovered the machines were destroyed by the weather and was on the hook for the cost.

“If it’s the will of the commission to pick up all the machines, we’ll pick up all the machines,” Orosa said.

Also Thursday, commissioners gave developer Swires Properties the go-ahead for large increases in retail and parking space, and to build more condo units, in a $1.05-billion development planned for three blocks just west of Brickell Avenue and below the Miami River. It’s one of the most ambitious projects in city history. They also said Brickell CitiCentre could change its name to Brickell CityCentre.

With the approval for more space, the urban shopping and mixed-use development will add 772 parking spaces, for a total of 5,519. It will increase the number of condos by 350, to a total of 1,174. And it will increase its retail/entertainment component by more than 80,000 square feet, for a total of 636,271.

Commissioners also unanimously passed another resolution asking the U.S. Department of Justice to allow the city to hire 50 certified police officers. The administration has proposed hiring 33, though that number could increase depending on budget negotiations.Miami is required to get DOJ approval when hiring certified officers due to a 1977 finding that the city discriminated against blacks and Hispanics in its hiring practices. The city can hire non-certified officers — who have to undergo training — without Justice clearance.

Even with a quick decision from DOJ, the process is expected to take three or four months. The city manager said he doesn’t expect the hires to take place until the new budget year begins in October. Miami is currently understaffed with 1,087 officers, though the city has budgeted for 1,144. Martinez said it should reach that number by June.

Commissioners also gave preliminary approval to holding the mayoral election on Nov. 5, with a runoff if necessary two weeks later. Elections for commission Districts Three and Five also are set for Nov. 5.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.

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