DUI arrests plummet in Miami Beach, across Miami-Dade County

Officer Kevin Millan from the City of Miami Beach police department arrests a woman after she failed a field sobriety test at a DUI checkpoint in 2006 in Miami.
Officer Kevin Millan from the City of Miami Beach police department arrests a woman after she failed a field sobriety test at a DUI checkpoint in 2006 in Miami. Getty Images

In a city brimming with world-famous nightclubs and bars, Miami Beach police officers once made curbing drunk or high drivers a top priority — notching 1,299 arrests back in 2010.

Not anymore.

Newly released Miami-Dade court statistics show that the department recorded just 138 DUI arrests last year, a startling low in a county where DUI arrests have steadily plummeted in recent years. Across Miami-Dade County, police made just 3,609 arrests last year, down nearly 20 percent from the year before.

And that’s a far cry from 2010 when cops countywide cuffed 6,321 suspected intoxicated drivers.

“It’s horrific. There is virtually no DUI enforcement anymore,” said Janet Mondshein, the executive director of Miami-Dade’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “There’s just a few officers that do a lot of the arrests but there aren’t many and people’s lives are in jeopardy.”

There is no one reason for the drop in DUI arrests.

Some officers and police union officials blame a lack of manpower, training and support from the brass, as well as a controversial program in court for first-time DUI offenders. Some believe that successful ride-sharing programs such as Uber and Lyft have cut at least some of the drunk drivers on the road.

Miami Beach Police Chief Daniel Oates acknowledged that at the behest of city leaders, much of his manpower over the past year has been dedicated to improving traffic in a city perpetually clogged with cars — not nabbing drunk drivers.

“In an ideal world, we’d have more resources that could be dedicated to DUI enforcement,” Oates said in an interview. “I am concerned. I think there is more that we can do.”

High-profile fatalities involving suspected drunk drivers certainly have not stopped.

Across the causeway in December, Miami-Dade police say, Alexander Chica was drunk at nearly twice the legal limit when he plowed into an Uber SUV, killing a passenger in Kendall. Chica, 21, is awaiting trial for DUI manslaughter.

On South Beach, a 21-year-old Florida International University student earlier this month hit two federal agents who were hailing a cab on Collins Avenue, police say. One of them later died. Jordana Rosales was charged with fleeing the scene of an accident. Though investigators suspect alcohol played a role, she did not face DUI manslaughter charges because police say it was too late to test her blood.

But a law enforcement source told the Miami Herald that Rosales was seen driving erratically down Collins Avenue for some time before she made the ill-fated U-turn that killed Homeland Security Investigations Agent Scott McGuire. And the source said she admitted to being drunk, and video surveillance shows her club hopping. Her attorney said he was withdrawing from the case and it was unclear who was representing Rosales.

The ride-sharing program Uber has touted its success as one reason for the drop in DUI fatalities in other states. In Miami, according to the company, its ridership peaks past midnight, when people are out on the town.

“In a market like South Florida, where drunk driving has traditionally been a concern, we are proud to be able to offer a safe, reliable transportation option that is helping thousands of people to get home safely after they have been drinking,” said Kasra Moshkani, Uber’s South Florida general manager.

And overall, DUI-related car crashes on Miami Beach have fallen. Last year, the department said, there was 47 DUI-related crashes, down from about 100 the year before.

“The crime rate is down in Miami Beach, as it is nationally. The efforts of law enforcement and MADD have helped spread awareness of drunk driving,” said Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco. “But I still don’t think that correlates to such a low number of arrests.”

Grieco, a criminal defense lawyer, and others at the Miami-Dade courthouse point to the state attorney’s “Back on Track” program as one major reason for the decrease in DUI numbers.

The program allows certain first-time DUI offenders to pay fines, complete community service and take classes to have their DUI charges reduced to reckless driving. Thousands of motorists have gone through the program since it began in 2011; prosecutors say it generates hundreds of dollars in fines per case and some punishment for cases that were often lost when officers failed to show for trial.

But many longtime DUI officers say the program is just too lenient.

“You’re doing two to three hours of paperwork and they are just getting classes,” said one longtime DUI officer. “It’s very discouraging for the officers.”

Defense lawyers — themselves hit with way fewer clients — contend that cops have stopped making DUI arrests because Back on Track hits them in the pocketbook.

“Nobody is going to court to fight the DUIs, so officers aren’t getting the overtime they used to get,” said Miami defense lawyer Michael Catalano.

The police department and union denies that court overtime plays a role in the drop.

Miami Beach had long been one the most active agencies in busting drunk and high drivers.

The department was the worst offender in a 1997 Miami Herald series, “Collars for Dollars,” that documented rampant overtime abuse on DUI cases in the county’s three largest police departments. The series led to reforms in how police overtime is doled out.

Still, many DUI officers remained aggressive for years afterward. But in recent years, key DUI specialists have retired, been reassigned or promoted.

Robert Jenkins, the head of Miami Beach’s Fraternal Order of Police, also blames a lack of morale in a department that is in long-running contract negotiations.

“Before, the department was very gung-ho. But times are changing. Drinking and driving is just not a priority,” Jenkins said.

Oates, a relatively new police chief, insists morale is high but admits manpower is stretched thin. At the direction of the City Commission, the police department has embarked on a program called “Operation Traffic Blitz” to improve road flow.

Last year, officers ticketed nearly 3,000 motorist who blocked intersections while towing thousands of freight vehicles blocking lanes.

A $100,000 state grant will pay this year for officers to “saturate” the streets and nab DUI offenders. A first such effort this month netted five DUI arrests. More motorcycle officers are also being added in the coming months.

“I think we’ll show more arrests in the coming year,” Oates said.

Miami Beach isn’t the only agency to have dipped in DUI arrests.

At the city of Miami, police officers logged 466 arrests. That’s well down from a high of 1,013 arrests in 2012, records show.

“We’re still doing DUI enforcement, but it’s difficult to say why the arrests are down,” said Miami Maj. Delrish Moss, a spokesman. “We’d like to think that more people are getting the message and not getting behind the wheel.”

The Florida Highway Patrol notched less than 400 arrests, 30 percent less than the previous year.

Miami-Dade police, the county’s largest police department, actually went up slightly from the year before: 1,530 arrests, although that number is down from a few years ago.

One of the most aggressive departments for DUI enforcement was Pinecrest, the small South Miami-Dade department of just 48 sworn cops that nabbed 125 suspected drunk drivers last year — almost as many as Miami Beach. Their efforts have led to a slew of awards.

“It is undeniable that traffic enforcement saves lives,” city spokeswoman Michelle Hammontree said.

“We strive for more DUI enforcement.”