Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose ‘Pepe’ Diaz is acquitted in drunk-driving case in Key West

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Body-camera footage of Miami-Dade commissioner's arrest

Body-camera footage from September shows Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz identifying himself as a commissioner shortly after being pulled over during a Key West traffic stop. Diaz was acquitted on May 4, 2016.
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Body-camera footage from September shows Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz identifying himself as a commissioner shortly after being pulled over during a Key West traffic stop. Diaz was acquitted on May 4, 2016.

It took 20 minutes Wednesday for a Key West jury to clear Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz of a drunk-driving charge after police clocked him racing his Harley-Davidson at 74 mph along a beachside road in the Southernmost City.

The speed limit on South Roosevelt Boulevard is 30 mph.

Diaz, 55, refused to take a breath-alcohol test on Sept. 19. Police bodycam video also showed the stop and captured Diaz telling an officer about his elected position and muttering, “Do you what you gotta do. My career is ended. It’s over. Whatever.”

But Diaz’s defense countered with witnesses who testified he didn’t appear drunk when he went for a bike ride without his wallet or driver’s license and offered an explanation that an inner-ear condition and other physical limitations caused him to lose his balance at one point.

After the verdict, Diaz thanked God, the judge, and the jury, calling the case an emotional roller-coaster.

“It’s embarrassing to be arrested,” Diaz said, referring to his arrest video. “I’m not proud of a lot of those moments, but I’ve learned from them.”

Diaz told police he had only a rum and Coke and a glass of champagne before getting on his Harley and on Wednesday told reporters he doesn’t trust the breath-alcohol machines.

“I wasn’t guilty,” said Diaz, standing beside his daughter and wife outside the courtroom at the Freeman Justice Center. “I believed I was innocent.”

Diaz didn’t take the stand in his own defense and told Monroe County Judge Wayne Miller he understood his right to do so. Without results of a breath-alcohol test, prosecutors relied on the police camera footage and officer testimony that Diaz failed field sobriety tests.

But the six-member jury wouldn’t convict Diaz of misdemeanor driving under the influence, which carries up to six months in jail upon conviction.

“LeBron James could not do these exercises today in this court,” Diaz’s lead attorney, Christopher Lyons, said during closing arguments. “It’s a kangaroo court designed for failure to justify an arrest.”

Diaz couldn’t have operated his Harley at 74 mph if he were drunk, Lyons added.

“People that are impaired, drunk, intoxicated — they have mood swings, they’re the ones that are belligerent,” Lyons said, referring to the 27-minute arrest video in which Diaz apologizes to police repeatedly.

Diaz claimed inner-ear problems harmed his balance and that he burned his leg on his bike when he pulled over for the 7:15 p.m. traffic stop.

For speeding, Diaz paid a $356 fine and $106 in court costs while not having his license on him cost him $222 in fines and costs.

Diaz, an avid motorcycle rider who was taking part in Key West’s annual Poker Run bike party, publicly apologized after the arrest and said it was a personal matter unrelated to his role as commissioner.

During the arrest, Diaz was recorded introducing himself as “Commissioner Diaz” and telling the officers to “Call Rick,” referring to Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay.

“I’m the most pro-police guy there is. I apologize,” Diaz is heard telling police on the police video, which also shows him nearly dumping his Harley as he stops.

Diaz’s refusal to take the breath-alcohol test meant an automatic one-year suspension of his driver’s license. But the four-term commissioner obtained a waiver available to first-time offenders allowing him to drive to work and complete chores such as grocery shopping.

“He has taken the high road throughout this whole process,” Lyons said after the verdict. “We’re so happy for him. He deserves it.”

After the verdict, Diaz told the Miami Herald, “I feel a lot of vindication. I believed I was innocent and it was demonstrated today.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer David Ovalle contributed to this story.

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