On any given day in Overtown, dozens of people walk down Northwest 17th Street headed toward a homeless shelter, bus stops or a supermarket on the edge of downtown.
But first, pedestrians in this poor Miami neighborhood cross a little-used railroad track just east of Northwest First Avenue. And every time they do, they run the risk of getting arrested.
Over the past 2 1/2 years, an obscure police force run by the Florida East Coast Railway has notched nearly 500 arrests in Miami-Dade County — the majority for trespassing at one single rail crossing used by trains just a few times a week. Few of the misdemeanor cases go anywhere, records show, with 85 percent dropped by prosecutors or dismissed by judges.
While the crossing is clearly marked with two “No Trespassing” signs, residents and other critics contend the repeated arrests only serve to harass an already marginalized populace, while posing a drain on the criminal justice system.
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“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Jessica Ann Hardy, 24, whose two arrests last year by FEC police were dropped by prosecutors. “They just like to mess with homeless people out there.”
Teresa Enriquez, chief assistant at the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office, called the arrests unfair. “When you have people who are arrested for merely crossing train tracks, what it does is that it criminalizes poor people and homeless people just trying to make their way through.”
The number of arrests by rail cops in Miami-Dade has skyrocketed in recent years.
Court records requested by the Miami Herald show that between 2009 and 2011, FEC officers arrested just seven people in Miami-Dade. But from the start of 2012 through the first six months of 2014, they have rung up 485 arrests. The company refuses to discuss the escalation.
“We do not conduct interviews regarding our police department and their ongoing work,” said Robert Ledoux, the company’s senior vice president.
Records also show nearly nine in 10 of all the Miami-Dade arrests since 2009 were made by one officer, Raul Guerra. He was fired in 2011 from the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office after a career that included discipline for excessive force, making an unlawful misdemeanor arrest and improperly searching a motorist. Guerra could not be reached for comment.
Rail police officers have been around since the early, lawless days of expansion across the American West. In Florida, the governor’s office has empowered the FEC to make arrests since the Great Depression, when vagrants hopped cars en route to the sunnier south, according to Seth Bramson, the company’s official historian.
Bramson calls the FEC force “a great department” made up of about a dozen officers who undergo the same police training as cohorts in bigger agencies.
“These are not security guards. These are police,” he said, adding: “Our police officers work very hard 24 hours a day to ensure the safety of our crews, to ensure that our freight gets through.”
FEC officers police more than 300 miles of track snaking through Florida, ensuring thieves stay out of freight cars, sensitive cargo remains undisturbed, kids don’t hurls rocks at trains and impatient motorists don’t burst through crossing gates.
Throughout Florida, there are more than 600 crossings where it is perfectly legal for people or cars to cross tracks. But the FEC says that everywhere else poses a safety risk to pedestrians and trains that can’t stop quickly. “It takes over one mile to stop a train depending on the speed and length of the train,” Ledoux said.
And rail use will increase in a couple years because of All Aboard Florida, a high-speed passenger service between Miami and Orlando planned alongside existing FEC lines. Work began on the tracks just in recent months.
According to federal statistics, FEC trains have killed nine people trespassing on the tracks in Miami-Dade since 2009. The last came in June 2012 when a 42-year-old man committed suicide not in Overtown, but some eight miles north in Liberty City.
It was one month later, in July 2012, that the FEC enlisted the help of officers from the tiny police department in Biscayne Park to help conduct a “special operation.”
Dubbed “Rail-Sweep,” the operation was intended to “educate the public on the overwhelming number of trespassers which are injured and killed during a year and to enforce the ‘no trespassing’ law,” according to an FEC police report filed as part of one court case.
The dragnet was cast from PortMiami to Biscayne Park. The operation netted dozens of arrests by both agencies, but records show all but a handful were dropped or dismissed.
But it’s Overtown that has seen the overwhelming number of FEC arrests, particularly at Northwest 17th Street next to Dorsey Park. Since 2009, 337 – or 68 percent of FEC arrests recorded in Miami-Dade County – were made at or within a block of the crossing, court records show.
For cars, the street dead-ends at the track. But for pedestrians, there is no fence, nothing to block the short walk across a track that is infrequently used. Bramson, the FEC historian, says a train passes the stretch two to four times a week.
Residents say FEC officers, in sports utility vehicles, idle around the corner and wait for people to cross. That’s what happened to Overtown’s Edduard Prince, 42, who says he was walking to his job downtown last year when two FEC officers pulled up, drew their guns, ordered him to show his hands and arrested him. A few weeks later, the charge was dropped.
“You tell someone you’re crossing the railroad tracks to go to work, it doesn’t register in anyone’s mind that it’s trespassing,” Prince said. “You can’t cut the community off like that.”
He is now suing the FEC railway for wrongful arrest. In court filings, the FEC says officers “were justified” in stopping Prince for trespassing.
The number of pedestrians who use the crossing has not escaped the notice of city leaders. In May, Miami’s Public Works Director sent the FEC a letter asking for a car and pedestrian crossing on “behalf of local neighborhood residents and local business owners.” So far, the request has gone nowhere.
Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, a former assistant public defender who now represents Overtown, said it is “disheartening” to learn so many people are being arrested for crossing tracks in his district.
“Rather than losing 100 percent of their cases, they should just build a fence,” Hardemon said.
Most of the people arrested for trespassing by the FEC are not hauled off to jail. Instead, they are issued a “promise to appear” in court — and several weeks later, the defendants walk free at a first appearance.
Nelson Berrios, a former FEC railway officer, acknowledged that the lack of convictions “is frustrating.”
“People look at trespassing as just a frivolous crime but in this circumstance, it’s not,” said Berrios, now a Lantana police officer. “It’s trying to save lives.”
To maintain impartiality, Miami-Dade judges cannot speak publicly about why they dismiss so many FEC cases. But one current judge, who asked not to be named, recalls throwing out a slew at an arraignment hearing.
“The volume of cases has raised some some eyebrows since most of the defendants coming to court have a legitimate reason to be crossing,” the judge said.
The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office declined to comment about FEC police practices. But in several cases examined by prosecutors at the request of the Herald, including Prince’s, the reason listed for the dismissals is simply “insufficient evidence,” said spokesman Ed Griffith.
Often times, prosecutors drop trespassing cases because an officer fails to appear for court, or an arrest report is not properly filled out, said Miami lawyer Pat Trese, the former head of the state attorney’s misdemeanor prosecutions.
“As a practical matter, it doesn’t do anything to minimize and lessen public safety and probably does a great deal to lessen the burden on the judicial system,” Trese said.
In at least one case, an FEC trespassing case was dropped after Guerra filed a case in Miami-Dade court — even though the arrest actually happened in Palm Beach County.
Damien Komala, 37, was arrested in November 2012 after construction workers closed off a major pedestrian crossing in downtown West Palm Beach. For days, a steady stream of people simply walked around the crossing — but Guerra stopped Komala, who was returning to his office after lunch.
“It’s ridiculous. I had to pay an attorney because I didn’t feel like taking off work and going down to Miami,” said Komala, who shelled out over $700 for his defense. Even though the case was dropped, the arrest remains on Komala’s record.
He’s not the only one vexed at the legal blemish. Lazaro Vizcon, 65, a practitioner of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, was arrested near Hialeah for trespassing while “performing some sort of ritual” on the track, according to his arrest report.
The case was dropped — but Vizcon was shocked to learn from a reporter that the arrest remained on his record.
“The officer didn’t show up to court,” Vizcon said. “I was just practicing my religion.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley, and Herald writer Ann Choi, contributed to this report.
A two-part radio version of this story will air on WLRN 91.3 FM. The first part will air at 6:34 a.m., 8:34 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Thursday. The second part will run at the same times Friday.