Here A Max, There A Max

A case of mistaken identity cost Max Pierre six weeks in jail and two months under house arrest. Now he says it's payback time for the Miami Police Department.

Annette Beauplan picked up the phone, and for a few seconds she lost her bearings. She knew the voice on the line was her brother, Maxau Pierre. But she couldn't figure out where in God's name he was calling from.

"He was flying back from Haiti that day and I thought he was calling me from the airport," Beauplan recalls. "I say, `Can I come pick you up?' He say, `No, I'm in jail.' I say, `What? What you do?' He say, `I don't know.' I got very upset right then. I thought he must be in Haiti still, stuck in the jail because of the political situation there. I say, `Where are you?' And he say, `Dade County jail.'"

At first Beauplan felt a measure of relief. "I thought, at least he's not stuck in Haiti. It's better that he's here where we can fix the problem." More than a year later, she isn't so sure. Neither is her brother, who spent nearly six weeks in jail and another two months under house arrest before prosecutors agreed in September to drop armed-robbery and kidnapping charges against him.

Scott Saul, Pierre's attorney, contends the arrest of his client was an obvious, and avoidable, case of mistaken identity. Last month Saul sent a letter to the Miami city attorney, informing him of his intent to sue the Miami Police Department for $100,000 in damages, citing "grossly negligent and deplorable police work" and a "malicious prosecution" that cost Pierre his job, thousands of dollars in court-related fees, and for the period he was incarcerated, his sanity.

"Assembly-line justice," Saul huffs. "My client had a clear alibi. If police or prosecutors had given this guy more than five minutes' consideration, they would have realized they had picked up the wrong Max Pierre. It seems to me that's what someone should have done to begin with: Ask my client his side of the story and check it out. Isn't that the whole point of an investigation?"

The Miami police robbery detective who conducted the investigation, Carol Thony, contends that she made her arrest on the basis of a positive identification by the victim. She never interviewed Pierre, she says, because "[police] couldn't locate him and had to issue a warrant."

According to police records, the incident that led to Pierre's arrest took place on October 12, 1991. On that Saturday a woman named Sonia Joseph arranged to meet with two men to buy a used car. Rather than selling Joseph a vehicle, the men allegedly held her at gunpoint and stole her purse, which contained more than $900 in cash.

Joseph came down to the police station after the rip-off and gave Thony the names of the two men: Andrew Destave, a former high school classmate of hers, and Max Pierre. Thony tracked down a picture of Destave from an old school yearbook and a photo of Pierre from a previous misdemeanor arrest. Joseph positively identified them as the thieves.

Defense attorney Saul contends that Joseph mistook the picture of his client for another person who happened to be Max Pierre. Thony counters that Joseph was "adamant" about the ID. (Efforts to contact Joseph, based on the phone numbers listed on her police complaint, were unsuccessful.)

Nearly six months after Sonia Joseph's photo ID, police still were unable to track down Pierre.

On May 21 Max Pierre, a legal resident of the U.S., flew into Miami International Airport, returning from a visit with his wife and child in Haiti. Before he had a chance to digest his in-flight meal, the diminutive immigrant was taken into custody; there was a warrant for his arrest. He says no police officer ever questioned him. In fact, because he speaks only Creole, Pierre wasn't quite sure of what he was accused.

"I just show up at the airport and the customs man take my passport," he explains in Pidgin English. "He run it through a computer and say to me that Metro-Dade is looking for me for a long time. I say, `I don't know nothing about that.' Then they take my picture and take my fingerprints and take me to the jail. I think I just have to spend a few hours there."

Not quite. Because he was accused of armed robbery, a first-degree felony, Pierre was booked without bond. While he sat in jail, his sister began a frantic round of calling. "I call down to the jail for a week to figure out what Max done," Annette Beauplan says. "One lady said she can't tell me. Then finally they say he kidnap someone. After that I start calling to lawyers. They wanted $10,000 or $15,000 to take the case because the charges were so serious. I figure, we'll do without lawyers. Because if he is innocent, they will realize anyway."

By June Beauplan's faith in the system had begun to erode. Pierre's arraignment date had come and gone. He had pleaded not guilty and returned to the Dade County stockade. He had been assigned three different public defenders since his arrest and had no idea when he might go to trial. "I lost one month, one week, and two days in jail," Pierre says now. "My family in Haiti don't understand what's happened. Sometimes I think I'm crazy."

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