Miami-Dade County

Nine years later, Miccosukee checkpoint on Loop Road persists despite complaints

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.

As for the Miccosukee police, the state-certified police agency frequently applies state law to arrest non-Indians near the reservation, yet refers Indians who are charged to their private tribal court, which is closed to non-Indians.

Three years ago, Miami-Dade prosecutors ripped the department’s handling of a January 2009 auto wreck on Tamiami Trial involving tribe members and a Kendall woman who died.

Citing the tribe’s sovereign status, the department at first refused to turn over to prosecutors reports and photos from the crash scene, even though it happened four miles west of Krome Avenue on a state road, well away from the tribe’s federally protected reservation.

The tribal police has some authority to patrol the Tamiami Trail — U.S. 41 — under a longtime agreement with the county. It does not have the same agreement for Loop Road.

The Loop Road stops began in 2004, spurring complaints from residents as the tribe tried unsuccessfully to lobby lawmakers to increase its police authority in Collier and Monroe counties.

The reason: Drug dealers and other criminals were flocking to the homes of tribe members, who were flush with gambling proceeds.

Then-Miccosukee Chairman Billy Cypress said at the time that the “minimally intrusive” checkpoints were simply protecting their residents, calling the traffic stops a “homeland security” measure.

Ultimately, then-Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess sent a letter asking tribal police to stop the practice or risk losing the county’s permission for the tribe to “maintain” the road.

After the complaints, the police softened their tactics, recalled Dave Ward, then the Miccosukee police chief. Non-Indians who were not visiting tribe members “were sent on their way.”

“We didn’t stop people. We didn’t pursue people. It wasn’t supposed to even be called a checkpoint. It was more of a watch,” Ward said. “We were the only meaningful police out there, and many people appreciated that.”

But in 2008, one year after Ward was fired, the Miccosukee Tribal Council adopted a more-aggressive approach.

In a copy of the tribal police’s “standard operating procedures” obtained by The Miami Herald, the tribe mandated that “all vehicles” entering Loop Road must be stopped, with a “Be on the Lookout” bulletin being issued for any car that refused to stop.

The police procedures mandate that non-tribal members must be “logged in” — and if any refuse, Miccosukee officers must note their destination, vehicle description and tag number.

“If they appear suspicious, or refuse to give their destination, have a relief officer follow the vehicle, and make sure they are not going to any of the Miccosukee residences,” according to the procedures.

Lucky Cole, a longtime resident who lives with his wife about seven miles down Loop Road, said it is not uncommon to see officers turning away tourists “and people who don’t know any better.”

“As far as constitutional rights, it’s just wrong,” said Cole, who no longer stops at the checkpoint.

David Fireman, the chief ranger at Big Cypress, said the stops have continued to nag employees and their families.

“It’s a unique situation,” Fireman said. “We do have to respect people’s private property, but public lands are supposed to open.”