Feud for Thought

Mike is a DUI attorney with a nose for legal loopholes. Alan is a crusading cop with a jones for drunk drivers. Vendetta, anyone?

This much is certain: On August 27, 1990, Michael Catalano, a Dade County attorney specializing in defending DUI suspects, was in his brown four-door Mercedes driving south on U.S. 1 when a police car drove up behind him and began flashing its lights. When Catalano pulled over and checked his rear-view mirror, he saw a familiar face behind the wheel of the patrol car. Catalano stepped out of his Mercedes to meet Alan Davis, a Coral Gables police officer with a burning desire to put drunk drivers behind bars. Fortunately for Catalano, he had not been drinking but, according to Davis, he had been driving too fast and dangerously zipping his car back and forth between lanes. Catalano vigorously denied those charges and drove away from the encounter with two tickets and a determination to redress what he saw as a grievous wrong.

Five months later a Dade County traffic-court magistrate told the 36-year-old attorney that he would have to pay $25 for each ticket but that no points would be assessed against his driving record.

A calmer person with an ability to put things in perspective might have accepted two traffic fines as a minor inconvenience. For Michael Catalano, the incident was tantamount to disaster. "When I walked out of the courtroom, I wanted to commit suicide," he recalls in a solemn voice. "I was so upset I said to myself, 'I want to die.' I stared at the ceiling at night. I could not sleep for at least a week and when I don't sleep I get sick. I really haven't slept well since then. I lie awake thinking about the injustice of it all. Even talking about it now causes my blood pressure to go up."

So much suffering, especially when it wracks the sensitive frame of an attorney, usually inspires legal action, and Catalano's angst was no exception. Ultimately, he made a federal case of it, filing a lawsuit two weeks ago against Davis for continued harassment. In addition, those two $25 tickets Catalano received three years ago generated one of the longest and most contentious traffic infraction litigations in the history of Dade County, if not all of South Florida. But the tickets are just two paper potshots in a larger war fought, not only in courtrooms, but also in lawyers' offices, police stations, and the great outdoors since the two enemies first squared off in 1989.

Since then, Catalano has been battling Davis by filing complaints with both the Coral Gables Police Department and the Dade State Attorney's Office, and this month he finally decided to seek damages in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida for what he calls Davis's "pattern of harassment." The lawsuit, filed January 7, also names the City of Coral Gables and its chief of police as codefendants, alleging that the police department was unable or unwilling to control a loose cannon. Over the years, Catalano asserts, Davis has chased him by boat as well as by car, and he says he fears the pursuit will never end.

The boyish-looking Davis denies harassing anyone -- and blames Catalano for continuing to stir up trouble. He also claims he harbors no ill-will toward a man who has filed the majority of complaints composing his hefty police department internal-affairs file. He says, however, that cumulative controversy generated by that file eventually affected his work and persuaded him to resign from the DUI task force he founded and nurtured.

Davis and Catalano are well matched. No one questions Davis's zeal in pursuing drunk-driving suspects, nor Catalano's in defending them. But with both men having fought so fiercely on opposite sides of the issue, and with so much at stake personally, when they finally met a battle was inevitable.

Davis's crusade against drunk driving began after an incident in September 1988 when a boozy motorist, later convicted, killed Davis's friend, seventeen-year-old Alicia Atienza. Davis didn't make the arrest but he knew her family well. The teenager's death, he says, compelled him in 1989 to found a new lab A named after Atienza A to test DUI suspects and to establish a task force that has now grown to about fifteen members. Davis took such strong interest in DUI suspects that he often showed them Atienza's photograph hanging outside the new testing laboratory. Although he resigned from the task force in 1991 A thanks, in part, to his nemesis Catalano A he still spends much of his free time giving presentations about drunk driving at Dade County high schools. He is currently a detective in the Coral Gables Police Department's Youth Resource Unit.

Until his resignation, Davis led the DUI squad in arrests of intoxicated drivers, he says, booking up to twice as many suspects as other officers. "The Coral Gables Police Department never had any real enforcement of DUI till I started working on it," he boasts. "I jumped in with both feet. I wanted to do it right." Indeed, he has won commendations from anti-drunk-driving groups and from his own police chief.

But there is a dark side as well. Some prosecutors and defense attorneys say Davis's overzealous commitment often impaired his judgement, poisoning his opinion of Catalano and other lawyers defending drunk-driving suspects. There's a kernel of truth in those charges, and so Catalano, with his brownish-red hair, wiry frame, and Type-A personality, seems to have captivated Davis the way a fluttering cape draws a bull. Catalano is one of the more visible, aggressive, and successful DUI attorneys in South Florida. An October 1991 Miami Herald survey of DUI attorneys rated him second in the region in terms of successful defenses.

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