Miami-Dade County

Court strikes down Miami watchdog agency’s power to subpoena cops

Freddy D’Agostino (center) fought a subpoena by Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel in court. The Supreme Court of Florida ruled Thursday that the watchdog agency can’t compel officers to appear before them.
Freddy D’Agostino (center) fought a subpoena by Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel in court. The Supreme Court of Florida ruled Thursday that the watchdog agency can’t compel officers to appear before them. Miami Herald

A watchdog agency created years ago by Miami voters lost an important tool in its investigation of police officers Thursday when the Florida Supreme Court struck down its power to subpoena city cops.

Declaring the power unconstitutional, the state’s high court ruled unanimously that Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel can not compel Miami police officers to appear before their board while under investigation. The court’s justices said the subpoenas violate special protections afforded police in Florida under a provision called the Police Bill of Rights.

“If we were to hold otherwise, nothing would preclude the formation of other bodies similar to the Civilian Investigative Panel by other governmental units with concurrent geographical jurisdiction over an officer, all empowered with subpoena power and potentially subjecting an officer to repeated governmental pressure over an extended time …” the justices wrote in their opinion.

There is no reason to waste taxpayers’ money on a group that has no power or responsibilities.

Lt. Javier Ortiz, police union chief

The decision reverses lower court rulings in support of the agency, which often looks over the shoulder of Miami’s internal affairs and recommends punishment to the chief of police.

The ruling was hailed by Miami’s police union chief, who has argued that the civilian panel itself is illegitimate and should be abolished.

“There is no reason to waste taxpayers’ money on a group that has no power or responsibilities,” said Lt. Javier Ortiz.

The agency, created through a 2001 voter referendum, has been fighting to preserve its subpoena powers over police officers since 2009, when then-Lt. Freddy D’Agostino sued to challenge a subpoena. The case has lingered ever since, eventually becoming a referendum on the agency itself.

“Indeed, the chief of police in the City of Miami and the President of the Fraternal Order of Police have both issued opinions that the CIP is not necessary and should be abolished,” Chairman Horacio Stuart Aguirre wrote Thursday in a statement to the Miami Herald. “One might think they would tolerate the CIP if it were to be limited to simply baking cookies and rubber stamping the findings of the police Internal Affairs reports.”

The CIP prevailed over the attack to take it out of existence, and the CIP continues on its mission as demanded by the people of the community.

Horacio Stuart Aguirre, chairman, Civilian Investigative Panel

Police Chief Rodolfo “Rudy” Llanes called Aguirre’s comments “outrageous” and “disappointing” Thursday evening, saying he never argued that the Civilian Investigative Panel should be abolished.

Regardless, the Supreme Court, however, went out of its way in its decision to affirm the validity of police oversight agencies and noted that its ruling was narrowly applied to the issue of subpoenas of police officers in relation to complaints under investigation. In a way, the ruling changes nothing for the agency, since it stopped years ago trying to compel police to appear after D’Agostino took the issue to court.

“The CIP prevailed over the attack to take it out of existence,” Aguirre wrote, “and the CIP continues on its mission as demanded by the people of the community.”

This article has been updated to include comments from the chief of police.

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