Schonton Harris, a rogue Miami cop who earlier this year admitted to running a drug protection racket, was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison in federal court Wednesday. It was harsh punishment that exceeded the decade behind bars her attorneys had sought when she pleaded guilty to the charges in January.
Her attorney, Gennaro Cariglio Jr., told the court that Harris had overcome a “traumatic childhood” — abandonment by her mother after birth, sexual abuse by her father and a rape that left her pregnant in high school — to become a cop. In a memo arguing for a lighter sentence, he argued the veteran officer had turned to crime because she couldn’t pay her bills.
“Despite her upbringing, Ms. Harris persevered and became a city of Miami police officer in 1999 until the time of her arrest,” he told the court. “Unfortunately, an emotionally difficult and costly divorce from her abusive spouse in 2017 caused her to feel that her back was against the wall due to those financial issues.”
Prior to the sentencing, Cariglio asked for leniency, saying that Harris’ crimes were less “egregious” than those committed by former Biscayne Park Police Chief Raimundo Atesiano, who received a three-year sentence after being found guilty of falsely arresting and framing innocent black men to inflate arrest rates for a series of burglaries that plagued the community he pledged to protect.
But U.S. District Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga wasn’t swayed by the attorney’s argument or the more than a dozen letters he provided from family and clergy pleading for leniency. During Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted a little over an hour, Altonaga sentenced Harris to 15 1/2 years in federal prison, three years of supervised release and ordered her to pay a $100 court cost.
Federal agents and prosecutors applauded the stiff sentence, saying the harshest penalties should be given to law officers who abuse the public trust for money.
“Those who use their badge to break the law and enrich themselves will be brought to justice,” U.S. Attorney Ariana Fajardo Orshan said in a prepared statement.
Harris, 53, was arrested in October along with Miami police officers Kelvin Harris and James Archibald for accepting $17,000 by using her badge and firearm to carry out a series of criminal activities. Federal agents snared her after posing as drug dealers and after a series of incidents that seemed straight out of a rogue-cop movie.
The agents claimed that Harris, Kelvin Harris and Archibald collected a total of $33,500 over a six-month period for distributing opioids and cocaine and serving as a protection squad for drug dealers.
In one instance, federal agents claimed the 20-year veteran sold a police uniform and a badge for $1,500, despite being told the clothing would be used by a “sicario,” a drug cartel hit man.
Federal agents recorded several of her activities, one time as she threatened to shoot someone she viewed as suspicious, saying, “I was gonna pop that mother...,”
Later, during another recorded conversation, Harris admitted to using and dealing narcotics and faking a drug test while she was a cop. She also admitted to recruiting Kelvin Harris, no relation, and Archibald. One witness, who was a Miami cop working undercover, according to her initial criminal complaint, said Harris was protecting a courier who was collecting drug money from pharmacies and clinics engaged in the illegal sale of opioids.
The trio’s actions didn’t take place in any particular neighborhood and Miami police informed the FBI about Harris’ suspicious activities a year ago. Kelvin Harris and James Archibald were charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine in December. They’re both awaiting trial.