‘Hundreds, if not thousands’ of Miami DUI cases in peril as witness accused of racist comment

Pablo Espinoza
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Miami-Dade Public Service Aide Pablo Espinoza played a unique role in the criminal justice system. He was the only person from the county’s largest police department who testified in hearings about the maintenance and integrity of police breath-test machines, which are used to arrest drunk drivers.

But now Espinoza has become ensnared in a racially charged controversy — reassigned and placed under internal investigation for allegedly saying a black female police sergeant “looks like a monkey.”

In the fallout of the scandal, first reported Monday by the Miami Herald, the Miami-Dade Police Department says it has now found a replacement for Espinoza, who was in charge of testing and maintaining the county’s Intoxilyzer 8000 machines.

But exactly how his troubles will affect hundreds of pending cases in which he was listed as a witness remains to be seen.

Defense lawyers say Espinoza was nowhere to be found this week at Miami-Dade’s Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building, where the DUI cases are heard every day. Whether he testifies in upcoming cases is unclear — and if he does, it remains to be seen if judges will allow defense lawyers to bring up the internal probe into his racially charged comment.

“Presently, plans are being developed to ensure the continued prosecution of DUI cases where Espinoza may have been involved,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney’s spokesman Ed Griffith, who did not provide more details.

Miami defense attorney Robert Reiff, who specializes in DUI cases, said prosecutors already delayed one of his cases this week because Espinoza was not on hand. He said the law requires the breath-test machine technician to testify about testing the machines for accuracy one month before, the month of and one month after a DUI arrest.

That means Espinoza remains a key witness for prosecutors trying to prove the Intoxilyzer properly measured a suspect’s breath to determine blood-alcohol content, Reiff said.

The Intoxilyzer 8000 is the standard machine used for drunk-driving tests.

“If they were to fire the guy, they would lose hundreds, if not thousands of cases, involving breath tests,” Reiff said.

Espinoza has declined to talk to the Miami Herald. He was a witness in the DUI case against Miami-Dade Schools Sgt. Tracy Moore, who is accused of driving drunk. On Tuesday, prosecutors upgraded the charge against her to include felony child endangerment, because her kids were in the car.

Her defense lawyer, Michael Catalano, is fighting the charge. He says Moore was sober. Back on Sept. 4, Moore had a hearing over her suspended license at a Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles office.

Catalano said Espinoza grabbed him by the shoulder and said Moore “looks like a monkey sitting over there.” The lawyer said the public service aide later admitted to the comment, via text message and in a deposition.

“State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has already reached out to Miami-Dade Police Department Director Juan J. Perez to emphasize her repugnance with the remarks allegedly attributed to Miami-Dade public service aide, Pablo Espinoza,” according to Griffith, the spokesman.

While Espinoza generally does not administer the tests himself, his testimony is key because defense lawyers frequently attack the accuracy and science of the Intoxilyzer machines, which use infrared light to measure for alcohol in someone’s breath.

Law enforcement has repeatedly run into problems with the machines.

A few years ago, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement came under scrutiny for failing to properly test the machines for years.

Over a decade ago, FDLE employee Sandra Veiga was fired after the agency said she was unplugging machines that looked like they might fail their performance tests. The machine used in the testing was disallowed in at least one courtroom in Broward County.

David Ovalle covers crime and courts in Miami. A native of San Diego, he graduated from the University of Southern California and joined the Herald in 2002 as a sports reporter.