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
Broward officials couldn’t point to any one reason for their lower count, but said they have less of a problem with roadside vendors and work vehicles without signs.
Of the 18 ordinances reviewed by the Miami-Dade Commission, most are decades old.
Any police officer in Miami-Dade County can arrest someone on a county ordinance. Often, the violator is not physically booked into jail but is allowed to sign a ``promise to appear’’ notice, agreeing to show up in court.
Felix Saravia, 41, a West Miami-Dade gardener charged in March with not having a work truck sign, spent a night in jail for missing his hearing. He was arrested on a bench warrant issued by a judge.
``It was terrible, humiliating and disheartening,’’ said Saravia, whose charge was dismissed after he bought the sign.
Beyond enforcement, taxpayers foot prosecution, court and jail costs. To recoup some money, the state attorney’s office charges police about $17 to prosecute each case.
``In my opinion, it’s a very poor use of your resources and very poor use of ours,’’ Judge Slom told commissioners at the committee meeting.
Miami-Dade police Director Robert Parker declined repeated requests for an interview.
Slom and Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, who is pushing the effort, stress that the targeted violations wouldn’t go unpunished.
They are considering several alternatives. One would strip criminal provisions from the ordinances, transferring cases from the courts to a civil forum, similar to the county’s code enforcement system. Compliance officers would write up violations, and administrative hearing officers — lawyers who act as judges — would issue civil fines.
Another approach, used in Philadelphia, would recategorize public nuisances such as drinking in public and trespassing as ``summary offenses’’ — still considered criminal, but not punishable by jail time.
Instead of arresting violators, Philadelphia police issue citations. Judges dole out community service, rehabilitation or fines. Some volunteer for ``nuisance night court’’ held in police precincts.
Still, for Miami-Dade commissioners, undoing the ordinances will not be an easy sell.
Targeting nuisance crimes is popular with many citizens groups and police because there is an immediate, visible result — the homeless man drinking a beer or the fruit vendor blocking traffic are removed from the area, even if not for very long.
``The way it is now is so useful to law enforcement, to prevent crime and maintain quality of life,’’ said Naim R. Erched, head of the Miami-Dade Association of Chiefs of Police and a Miami-Dade police assistant director.
Commissioners passed the commercial-vehicle sign ordinance 34 years ago, for example, to deter burglars masquerading as blue-collar workers.
But the strategy often ignores the root causes of crime — such as lack of jobs or education — while pushing violators to other neighborhoods, said Laura Finley, a criminology professor at Barry University.
``It targets a much lower socioeconomic class: the homeless, people just selling items for a living. Is that the person we really need to go after?’’ she said.
In South Beach late last year, Miami Beach police jailed homeless Francisco Jimenez, 76, who has a long rap sheet. Residents had complained that Jimenez was ``urinating, defecating, having rotting food.‘’ Still, a judge dismissed the sanitary nuisance charge. Jimenez isn’t hanging around Fifth Street anymore. But locals have mixed feelings about his treatment.
Moti Tur, manager of the nearby VIP Scooters, said police should go after law-breaking vagrants: ``The police are doing whatever they need to do. Tourists don’t want to see that.’’
But Alejandro Pascale, a bartender walking his dog in the area, wasn’t sure just how tough is too tough for nuisance crimes.
``I don’t want to see them,‘’ he said of vagrants. ``But they are people living here in society.’’