Beach gets tough on rowdy athletes

Their "party fouls" on South Beach turned into rap sheets.

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones refused to stop dancing in the street, police said.

Florida Panthers forward Ville Peltonen allegedly hit a fire-rescue truck with a metal pole.

Marlins All-Star pitcher Dontrelle Willis was "confused and disoriented" while driving his black Bentley, police said.

The trio, along with nearly a dozen other professional athletes, joined the hundreds who came to South Beach to party in recent months but landed in custody. The celebrities -- at least two of them Tasered -- were swept up in a wave of stepped-up enforcement.

"These are mostly quality-of-life things that 10 years ago we might have given breaks on, but we're not giving breaks anymore, " said Miami Beach police spokesman Robert Hernandez. "If you have too much to drink and come out of the clubs and don't behave, it will not be tolerated."

In the first three months of this year, DUI arrests jumped nearly 60 percent to 221 from the same period last year. Overall arrests for 2006 were up 26 percent from 2005, while arrests during the city's hip-hop Memorial Day festivities, dubbed Urban Beach Week, nearly doubled to 1,010.

Civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, denounce the enforcement as targeted and excessive, while residents who have long complained about rowdy, post-party crowds insist more could be done.

"We continue to have a lawless element coming to the Beach . . . who take drugs and get drunk, get in fights, tear up the premises, disrupt the clubs they're in and create a whole series of costly police events, " said longtime Beach activist Frank Del Vecchio. "It's not a success that arrests have tripled; it would be a success if there were no arrests."

The city's evolving relationship with revelers is part of the continuing tug-of-war between two factions often at odds: residents and the entertainment industry.

Two decades ago, nightlife and fashion turned a rundown retirement destination into a hot spot. And now residents drawn to the city's new vibrance complain that the nightlife, especially in South Pointe and other areas where clubs and condos exist side-by-side, brings noise and traffic gridlock.

"I think the clubs are happy to see police are doing their job, " said lawyer Steve Polisar, chairman of the city's Nightlife Task Force. "I think the city has gone about as far as it can possibly go in striking a balance" between the clubs and residents.

Others in the entertainment and tourism industries have a different view.

"Miami Beach is not a mecca of cultural activities, " said developer Don Peebles, a Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau executive committee member. "This is the image we have cultivated; this is what we have sold: Come here and party. So what do they expect from people?"

One major dispute ended last year with the adoption of a noise ordinance that increased fines to a range of $250 to several thousand dollars.

"We always have to strike a balance here, and it's always a challenge, " said Miami Beach spokeswoman Nannette Rodriguez.

Local civil liberties groups say the city is going too far, particularly during Memorial Day weekend, when thousands of black revelers descend on the city.

Police say the rise in arrests is due to more effective policing, including the deployment of undercover officers who made hundreds of drug arrests.

The high number of arrests over Memorial Day weekend last year prompted the Miami-Dade NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida to review Miami Beach Police practices to look for evidence of racial profiling.

The police "were clearly overzealous, " said Mel Reeves, an NAACP executive board member. Reeves suggested policing be consistent with the "party" atmosphere. "Some things shouldn't be taken as seriously, " he said.

The groups offered 12 recommendations to Miami Beach and Miami-Dade officials to reduce arrests, including having officers issue oral warnings.

"We have a good, open dialogue . . . but we've been very clear that we can't tell officers not to enforce the law, " said Assistant City Manager Hilda Fernandez, who met with the groups on April 13. "We want people to come, have a good time, and then go home -- period. Why would we want them to come and have a negative opinion?"

About 42 percent of charges over last Memorial Day weekend were dropped, said Aziza Botchway, staff attorney with the ACLU's racial justice project.

"Even if a case is dismissed, you've already been embarrassed and you have something that will stick with you for the rest of your life, " Botchway said.

For professional athletes, the ramifications for an arrest can be severe.

Heat rookie guard Robert Hite, a former University of Miami star, was dropped by the team after he was arrested on DUI charges in Miami Beach in January, though the charges were dismissed when tests revealed his blood-alcohol level was within the state's legal limit.

Another Heat player, star defender James Posey, was arrested on April 9 on DUI charges after Miami Beach police saw his car stopped in the left lane of traffic as he talked to pedestrians. Posey refused to take a breath test, and police said he had slurred speech, and was "unsteady and swayed on his feet."

Posey insists he was not intoxicated. Posey faces possible sanctions by the NBA over the arrest.

Miami Herald staff writer Andrea Robinson contributed to this report.