|Miami Daily Business Review
Judge in Miami Cops Case Opens Door to Civil Suits
Civil rights advocates were ambivalent about the mixed federal jury verdict in the conspiracy trial against 11 Miami police officers. But plaintiffs' lawyers are gleeful over a newly unsealed ruling in the case that could improve their chances of winning millions from the city of Miami in civil lawsuits alleging police misconduct.
U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold's 87-page order is a sweeping determination by the court that federal prosecutors met the civil "preponderance of the evidence" standard in prosecuting 11 Miami officers on charges that they conspired to plant guns at four police shootings and then lied to cover it up. The order, released late Wednesday, was issued under seal in early March.
"By the preponderance of the evidence, each shooting involved a subject (or in the case of I-395, two subjects) whom the shooting officers claimed was armed, but actually was not armed," Judge Gold wrote. "The defendants all took steps to make it appear by their sworn testimony that the subjects were armed," Gold wrote in the order.
Coral Gables, Fla., attorney Jeffrey Jacobs is representing Alice Young, the mother of Antonio Young, who died along with Derrick Wiltshire in a November 1995 shooting under the I-395 overpass. Jacobs said he plans to use Gold's ruling in Young's lawsuit, which is now before U.S. District Judge Jose A. Martinez of the Southern District of Florida.
"I definitely perceive it to be helpful," Jacobs said. "It corroborates everything we've been trying to prove and affirms that it can be proved."
On Wednesday, a federal jury convicted four Miami officers, acquitted three and deadlocked on charges against four others. The standard of proof in the criminal case was the stricter "beyond a reasonable doubt."
The government is still considering whether to retry the hung charges against Officers Jose Acuna, Jorge Garcia, Israel Gonzalez and Jose Quintero.
Judge Gold issued his order at the close of the government's case. It remained under seal until the jury was discharged.
He handed down the ruling because he was legally required to certify whether or not certain co-conspirator hearsay statements presented to the jury met "the traditional requirements of admissibility" independent of the hearsay itself. The judge's March 3 ruling supported the use of those statements.
In sum, he held that the government had met its evidentiary burden by showing "an interdependence among the alleged conspirators in order to prove that the indicted conspiracy was a single, unified conspiracy as opposed to a series of smaller, uncoordinated conspiracies."
"I have been conservative in limiting co-conspirator statements to only the defendants who participated in each respective shooting and not against a defendant who did not participate in that shooting," Gold wrote. Still, Gold ruled that all the defendants "were bound together in a mutually beneficial scheme."
Again and again, in each of the four police shootings between November 1995 and June 1997 that were cited in the indictment, Judge Gold held that the "preponderance of the evidence" had established criminality.
Those shootings were the June 1977 wounding of drifter Daniel Hoban in Coconut Grove, Fla.; the November 1995 slayings of suspected tourist robbers Young and Wiltshire; the March 1996 machine-gunning of 72-year-old Richard Brown in his Overtown apartment; and an April 1996 shooting at suspected purse snatcher Steven Carter, who was not hit.
To date, Miami has paid $4.75 million to settle lawsuits stemming from those four cases plus a fifth case involving one of those 11 defendants, Officer Alejandro Macias. The biggest payout, $2.5 million in 2000, was made in the killing of Richard O. Brown, who died amid a hail of 122 bullets. Later the city paid $1.25 million to the parent of Jesse Runnels, a mentally disturbed man allegedly shot by Macias in 1999, and $925,000 to the mother of Derrick Wiltshire. Hoban settled for $25,000 and has since died.
In all, Miami has paid more than $20 million since 1990 to resolve more than 110 federal and state lawsuits alleging brutality, misconduct or unnecessary death caused by city officers.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla., attorney Barbara Heyer, who won the $2.5 million for the family of Richard O. Brown, said Gold's ruling would be helpful to plaintiffs' attorneys across the board in Miami police misconduct lawsuits.
"I think it's going to make it a lot easier to show a pattern and practice [of wrongdoing] at the city," she said, "particularly, when you have a finding by a judge in a criminal proceeding that there was this conspiracy and with these particular officers. In other cases that have the same type of allegations, this will certainly make it easier to prove that."
While not binding on any other judge, Gold's ruling puts the city on notice "that there are significant deficiencies within the department and that if they thumb their noses at the findings it will make it easier down the road for other cases to be made," Heyer said.
According to Heyer, there's a message to Miami and its Police Department in Gold's ruling. "The message is they need to clean up that department from top to bottom," Heyer said. "This is not just an isolated, or a few isolated incidents."