As I mentioned in an earlier post, I spent Monday and Tuesday at the Miami-Dade County Criminal courthouse, first on Jury Duty and then in the gallery at the trial of freelance photographer and journalist and fellow blogger Carlos Miller.
Carlos was being charged with four counts stemming from an incident in February of 2007. While working on a story for the now defunct Category 305 web site, Carlos stumbled upon some police activity on Biscayne Boulevard, heard a policeman shouting and started snapping pictures. He approached the scene and continued snapping pictures until one of the officers asked him what he was doing. Carlos identified himself as a journalist and the police officer asked him to leave the area. On this, all accounts agree. If you believe the police’s version Carlos was standing on a public street and was asked to move for his own safety and the safety of others. If you believe Carlos he was standing on a part of the road that was being resurfaced and off limits to regular traffic. Both sides agree that Carlos told the officers that he didn’t have to move, though how he said it is in dispute.
Carlos continued taking pictures of the officers until he was “redirected to the ground” as one of the State’s attorneys euphemistically called it.
The four counts Carlos was charged with were:
1. Obstructing a public roadway (the least serious of the charges but the charge upon which the rest of the case against him was built. The jury was not even permitted to decide on this charge because it does not rise to the level of jury trial.
2. Disorderly conduct.
3. Resisting arrest without violence.
4. Disobeying the lawful commands of a police officer.
During the trial the police officers apparently contradicted each other’s testimony (I didn’t get to see all of the testimony but was made aware of the inconsistencies in closing arguments). The Jury found that Carlos was not guilty of the disorderly conduct and the disobeying charges. They found him guilty of the resisting arrest charges and the judge found him guilty of the obstructing the public road charge.
Photo by Carlos Miller
I’m really disturbed by the outcome in this case. I’ve come to the conclusion that the system is set up to prosecute hardened criminals that are usually guilty of what they are charged with, offering them opportunities to plead to lesser charges along the way. It is definitely NOT set up for non-criminals who believe they are innocent to vindicate themselves. From the beginning Carlos felt than an injustice had been committed against him. That his rights as a journalist and a citizen had been violated. He started a blog and has begun to document similar incidents around the country. He is working on a documentary about this episode and others like it. Ignacio Vazquez, the State Attorney used these facts to base his prosecution on a theory that Carlos intentionally created the incident to derive notoriety for himself. In fact he began his closing argument by saying, “Andy Warhol predicted that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, and that future is now.”
Now it’s true that Carlos could have avoided this whole thing if had “played ball”, if he had just followed the officers’ commands. But the question is whether or not the police have the authority to tell you to move simply because your presence causes them some discomfort. There is no doubt that Carlos identified himself as a journalist. It’s true that Carlos could have avoided the incident but its also true that the police officers could have avoided it too. When they realized Carlos was a journalist they could have accepted that fact and left him alone. After all, what was he doing? He was taking pictures of public servants conducting their business in a public space. But Carlos was guilty. He was guilty of not respecting their authority. They did not want their pictures taken, and their desires took precedence over his right to stand there and document what was going on.
I’ll never forget the testimony of one of the police officers on the witness stand. He was describing the incident and said, “that’s when I decided he was going to jail.” Read that again, “that’s when I decided he was going to jail.” Not, “that’s when Mr. Miller broke the law,” or “that’s when Mr. Miller began engaging in disorderly conduct,” but, “that’s when I decided he was going to jail.” You see the officer gets to decide whether you go to jail or not. Later they’ll figure out which nebulous crime you committed. In this case he was obstructing a public roadway. For the record, both sides agreed that Carlos was standing behind barricades on a section of road that was being resurfaced and thus closed to regular traffic. But the police gladly explain that there were businesses on that side of the street and that cars could conceivably turn onto the gravel area where he was standing to access one of those businesses. It was a safety risk you see, it had nothing to do with a desire by the officers not to be photographed. “That’s when I decided he was going to jail.”
Carlos insisted on taking the case to trial. He refused deals that he was offered in which he would have to say he was guilty of anything. He testified in court though he was not required to do so because he wanted to have his say, to tell his side. We learned after the trial that Carlos did not help himself on the stand, the jury was set to acquit him. But he took the stand and was excited, a little high strung and with the State Attorney he was a bit combative. I can’t blame him. Imagine having these charges hanging over your head for a year and a half. Carlos did not respect the State Attorney’s authority.
After the jury rendered its verdicts, the state asked the judge to sentence Carlos to 3 months probation, 50 hours of community service, anger management, and $250 in court costs. The judge, Jose Fernandez, instead threw the book at Carlos relative to the crimes he was convicted of. He cited Carlos’ “cavalier” attitude when he gave him 1 year of probation, $540 in court costs, anger management and 100 hours of community service. Carlos did not respect the judge’s authority.
So there you have it folks. The moral of the story is that in Miami-Dade county the important thing is to respect authority. You should never question it unless you want to spend the next year picking up garbage at a public park and reporting to a probation officer who you must notify if you want to cross county lines. Respect authority people, even if that authority is being misused.