Law enforcement seemed such a meek little puppy as it dealt with the miscreants who crept through the dark, into Ray Allen’s Coral Gables home, into his sleeping wife’s bedroom.
So reluctant to act. An entire week passed before the state attorney’s office managed to conjure up some misdemeanor trespassing charges against the seven young intruders.
And that was only after a ruckus in the press and a perplexed statement from the basketball hero: “The suggestion that anyone can unlawfully enter into someone’s locked home and then into an occupied bedroom in the middle of the night without consequences is unsettling.”
Gregory Victor, Allen’s attorney, added to the pressure, with his own angry statement accusing Coral Gables police of ignoring a serious crime. He described how a “large number of young adults knowingly broke into Mr. and Mrs. Allen’s locked home on Thursday, Aug. 14, at 2:30 a.m. and absolutely terrified their family. The crime was not only egregious, but the police characterization of this as a silly prank is completely inappropriate.”
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The defendants, who had been partying at some fancy digs next door before they decided to sneak into Allen’s home, were all college-bound kids.
“I’ve never seen a group of finer young people,” their lawyer declared — a bit of hyperbole that only added to the public perception that the interlopers’ social status had accounted for the police indifference in this case.
Coral Gables police ascribed their dithering to the vagueness of the state trespassing law. Yet, South Florida police agencies have shown damn little reluctance in employing the statute in other circumstances.
Earl Sampson could attest to that. Sampson was the clerk at a Miami Gardens convenience store that seemed to be a target of the local cops. The Miami Gardens PD harbored no qualms about employing the trespassing law to make their point. The Miami Herald reported last year that Sampson had been hauled away on trespassing charges 62 times over a four-year period. Not one of those arrests resulted in a conviction.
Sampson, you might have guessed, was black and poor and not what you’d call college material. South Florida police have never shown a disinclination to use trespassing as a pretense to roust folks at the Earl Sampson end of the social spectrum.
If it had been Earl and his friends taking an unauthorized night tour of the Allen home, there would have been hell to pay. “If these had been my clients, they’d be looking at prison,” said Howard Finkelstein, the public defender in Broward County and a longtime critic of what he says is a disparate application of justice in South Florida. One set of laws, he said, seems to be reserved for the poor, particularly for blacks. Another for the monied class.
Among his clients, those who can’t afford their own lawyers, breaking into someone’s house, especially an occupied home, he said, “was one of those crimes that almost every judge treats as a very serious matter.”
He said judges are aware of the high probability, particularly in gun-happy Florida, that in situations like this, “Someone could die. Someone could get shot. One of these kids could freak out and use violence to get out of there.”
And if, say, Allen's wife, instead of calling 911, had pulled out a pistol and killed one of the teenagers who blundered into her bedroom, Finkelstein noted, the dead intruder’s accomplices would have faced second-degree felony murder charges.
But his complaint wasn’t so much that the police demonstrated restraint before finally bringing criminal charges against the Allen house intruders, it’s that law enforcement agencies show so little when it comes to employing those same misdemeanor statutes to pile low-rent charges on the poor.
My colleague David Ovalle, writing about a failed attempt to decriminalize certain minor offenses in Miami-Dade County back in 2009, found that cops exploited a number of favorite misdemeanor laws to harass folks deemed as nuisances. Between 2005 and 2009, he counted 52,560 arrests for violations like selling flowers on the side of the road, drinking within 100 feet of a liquor store, loitering in a park after hours, or commercial vehicle sign violations — crimes not associated with the monied classes. Nearly all of the charges were eventually dismissed.
Last year, Allen Smith, an investigator with the Broward public defender’s office, discovered a bizarre imbalance in how Fort Lauderdale police enforce the city’s bicycle registration statute — 86 percent of those cited for riding unregistered bikes were black. Meanwhile, 93 percent of those cited for jaywalking in Fort Lauderdale were black, though surely whites and blacks commit these awful violations with equal frequency.
An American Civil Liberties Union study found that in 2010, blacks were busted for marijuana possession in Broward 3.73 times more than white Americans, although about the same percentage of blacks and whites smoke pot and society in general hardly considers marijuana possession a crime at all.
The disparity is even more acute in Miami-Dade County, where blacks were 5.4 times more likely to get busted for pot than whites, where blacks represented 57 percent of all marijuana arrests.
The sense that the poor, particularly poor blacks, suffer disproportionate harassment and way more than their share of arrests on piddling, no-account charges was only exacerbated by the weeklong dawdling before police brought charges in the Coral Gables trespassing. Meanwhile, the racial and class resentments roiling in Ferguson, Missouri, seemed to add to the sense of disparity hanging over the Gables case.
But it’s not that those seven knuckleheads ought to be packed off to jail or face harsh sanctions in the name of racial equality. It’s that South Florida’s poor deserve the same measured consideration police dole out to culprits from our finer ZIP codes.