This Is Not the USA

He thought he was just doing his job and playing by the rules. Then he learned that the rules are very different in the sovereign nation of the Miccosukee.

Five days later Negron was notified by tribal authorities that he could pick up his personal property A but not the truck or his firearms A from the police department. Again accompanied by two Metro-Dade officers, and more than a month after being arrested, Negron finally recovered his house keys, licenses, cellular phone, walkie-talkies, and business files. The tribe then sent one of its attorneys, Juan Vargas (a partner in Lehtinen's law firm), to court in an effort to quash the order demanding return of the truck. Vargas argued that the tribal court system should be allowed to sort out the dispute, and Judge Thomas Wilson agreed.

In addition, tribal chairman Cypress ordered police chief Zecca to write to Metro-Dade police officials regarding the restrictions placed on state and local law enforcement officers. "The Miccosukee Tribal Council was adamant that this matter be addressed so there will not be a reoccurrence," Zecca wrote in his December 28 letter to Commander George Aylesworth, head of Metro's legal affairs unit. "I respectfully request that you take the necessary steps to initiate whatever means you deem appropriate to ensure that members of the Metro-Dade Police Department become aware of the unique and exclusive federal jurisdiction that exists in Miccosukee Indian Country...."

Negron now had no other recourse but to engage the Miccosukee in their own court. A hearing was set for Friday, January 20; Negron would be debating attorney Juan Vargas, who must have assumed he could deal with Negron in tribal court as handily as he had in state court. "I know Juan Vargas looked at me and thought I was some sort of tow-truck jockey who didn't know anything about the law and who he could railroad through this hearing," Negron says. (Vargas refused to be interviewed for this article.)

If Vargas appeared to be confident, he was probably entitled. After all, he was a former federal prosecutor with nine years experience practicing law in Florida. An assistant U.S. attorney under Lehtinen, Vargas left the prosecutor's office when Lehtinen resigned in 1992, and eventually joined him as a partner in the Miami law firm of Lehtinen O'Donnell Cortinas Vargas & Reiner. The firm's biggest and most high-profile client: the Miccosukees.

Without much to do in the way of repossession work, Negron threw himself into the case. "Vargas thought he was going after someone who was naive," he says. "He didn't realize that I would go to the law library and research the cases and be prepared." What Negron lacked in experience and formal training he compensated for in diligence. He spent hours at the University of Miami law library, reading widely and filling numerous notepads with citations and precedents from other states. He scoured the police reports for inconsistencies, prepared a witness list, and meticulously recorded every question he wanted to ask so he wouldn't forget any. Finally he wrote his legal briefs on his home computer.

The hearing, which lasted a full day, was held at the Miccosukee courthouse A a tiny single-story building A before two Miccosukee judges, Minnie Bert and Andy Buster, neither of whom are attorneys. Under questioning by Negron and Vargas, Lieutenant O'Neill testified that he had ordered Bythwood and Negron to leave the reservation after their meeting at the tribal police station and that he had not given them permission to drive to Teresa Osceola's house. The officer also testified that as he drove up to the house he saw Negron backing his truck off Osceola's property.

Bythwood then testified, and contradicted O'Neill on all key points. Even Negron's wife took the witness stand. Speaking through tears, she described the hardship suffered by the family after losing the tow truck.

Surprisingly, neither Teresa nor Sandy Osceola made an appearance, a point Negron hammered home in his closing argument. "If the lieutenant has such a strong case that I was trespassing, why isn't the alleged victim here to testify against me?" Negron asked. "I followed Lieutenant O'Neill's orders to a T. If I had wanted to do something criminal, I would not have gone to the police station first. I would have gone directly to the Osceola house. The vehicle was there; I could have hooked it and been gone. I didn't come out here to rob or steal. I'm doing my job."

Three days later, on January 23, the court ruled there was insufficient evidence to believe that the truck had been used in the commission of a crime; the judges ordered that it be returned to Negron. Vargas promptly appealed the ruling, and the truck remained in police custody until the tribal appeals court could hear the matter.

"I think the court's ruling was wonderful," says attorney Barry Wax, who is defending Negron against the criminal charges in state court. "It demonstrates the power of the common man when he comes in with nothing more than justice on his side and is still able to beat some high-priced attorney. Their own court system looked at him and said William was getting screwed. How embarrassing it must have been for Juan Vargas. When you go into your home court and get beat like that A it must have been embarrassing for the whole firm, especially Dexter. I'm sure that's why they appealed."

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