Miami-Dade County May End Costly 'Nuisance Laws'
Miami-Dade County is considering decriminalizing certain laws that judges say clog up their courtrooms, but which police and some residents say are valuable for curbing crime.
DAVID OVALLE | The Miami Herald via YellowBrix
October 14, 2009
Miami house painter Alexis Marichal was driving his work truck when police pulled him over, placed him under arrest and sent him to jail for a night.
His crime: not having a business sign on the side of the vehicle.
In court later, the judge dismissed the charge after Marichal proved he had purchased the sign and was a legitimate painter.
``I told [the police officer] that I’m not a delinquent, that I’m a hard-working man,‘’ said Marichal, 34. ``I told him, `How many people and kids are being raped and how many women are beaten, and I’m being arrested?’ ’’
Some high-ranking judges and county commissioners are asking the same thing.
With criminal-justice resources being squeezed more every day, the county is studying whether to decriminalize 18 minor infractions like the one that netted Marichal. They include selling flowers by the side of the road, drinking beer near a liquor store and being in a park after hours — all seemingly minor misdeeds, yet all on the books as crimes punishable by jail time.
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Judges say the county ordinances clog court dockets and jail cells with little benefit, but police argue they are important for preventing more serious crime. A report is due to the County Commission this month.
``We’re being forced to operate almost like a factory,‘’ Miami-Dade Chief County Judge Samuel Slom told a County Commission committee. ``We are handling cases that have no business being in a criminal courthouse.’’
Since 2005, police in Miami-Dade County have charged 52,560 people with such ``quality of life’’ misdemeanors. All were processed through the county’s overtaxed court system — where the vast majority saw their charges dismissed.
In Broward County, which logs dramatically fewer cases, no similar decriminalization movement exists.
The debate over minor crimes has been around since the mid-‘90s with the zenith of the ``broken windows’’ theory, a police strategy popularized in New York City that targeted nuisance crimes to help clean up neighborhoods and ward off weightier crime.
Despite low conviction rates, the specter of jail time gives heft to the measures, supporters say.
``A civil citation — a guy will just tear it up, it has no teeth,‘’ said Miami Police Chief John Timoney, a former New York City deputy commissioner who touted the ``broken windows’’ philosophy.