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.

Any journalistic inquiry into a case like Negron's would involve a number of routine procedures: reading the pertinent documents at the courthouse; inspection of the personnel files of the police officers involved; review of the police department's written policies to determine if they had been obeyed; listening to recordings of radio calls among police officers or from the public to the police department; and of course interviews with all relevant parties, especially public officials. On the Miccosukee reservation, however, none of that scrutiny is possible.

When New Times visited the Miccosukee courthouse and asked to see the file for case number 94-19A -- Negron's forfeiture -- the response was an incredulous stare. "We don't release anything to the public from here," said Bernie Roman, clerk of the tribal court. "Everything is released from the tribal office." Next door at the tribal office the response was similar: "Who told you about this case?" asked the receptionist. Only chairman Billy Cypress could authorize the release of court records, and according to Cypress's secretary, he was in no mood to share them with a reporter. "And if you want to know why," the secretary added, "he said because it's his prerogative."

On Cypress's instructions, police chief Zecca also refused to provide the personnel files of O'Neill and Sgt. Woodward Brooks, nor would he release any written policies regarding automobile repossession.

How many repossessions have the tribal police allowed in the past year? "I don't keep records on things like that," Zecca said.

Can he remember the last time his department allowed a repossession to take place? "No comment," the chief replied.

Initially chairman Billy Cypress refused to discuss Negron's case or the court proceedings, but later he consented to a brief interview. Asked once more about authorizing access to tribal court records, he repeated his denial. "The Sunshine Law does not apply out here," he remarked, referring to the Florida law that makes most governmental records and meetings open to the public. "Florida law does not apply out here. It's one of the privileges of being a sovereign nation." (The Miccosukee Indian reservation may not be part of the United States, but tribal members certainly don't have an aversion to taking federal money. According to figures provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tribe this year will receive $3.5 million from Congress, including $150,000 earmarked for tribal government and $790,000 for the sixteen-member police department.)

Against a gray and threatening sky, the Miccosukee Court of Appeals met on March 9. Composed of the entire adult population of the tribe, the court is presided by chairman Billy Cypress. Notices had been posted throughout the reservation; any member wishing to hear the case could attend and vote on the outcome. Whether because of the rain clouds or a general lack of interest, the turnout was small A only about 30 people gathered at the Chickeechobee, a traditional thatched-roof, open-air meeting place along the banks of a canal just off the Tamiami Trail.

Since winning his case before the tribal judges, Negron said he had received harassing phone calls warning him not to return to the reservation. Despite the alleged attempts at intimidation, Negron, accompanied by his father and carrying a box full of legal papers, strode across the wooden bridge leading to the Chickeechobee. Waiting on the other side were tribal attorneys Dexter Lehtinen and Juan Vargas. No outsiders were allowed to attend, and Miccosukee police were under instructions from Cypress to turn back any reporters.

Each side spoke for fifteen minutes. According to Negron, Vargas declared that people who come onto the reservation do so at their own risk, and that the tribe was well within its rights to seize the tow truck.

Negron explained to the group what he does for living, emphasizing that while people may not like repo men, they do have a place in society. And he told them he thought it was wrong for the tribe to hold his truck and make him pay to get it back. As Negron grew excited, his voice carried across the canal, where outsiders were allowed to wait. "That truck," he was heard to say, "is my livelihood. Why should I pay back money for what is rightfully mine? That's extortion, ladies and gentlemen."

When the presentations were concluded, members of the tribe voted by secret ballot. Some hours later Cypress announced the results. Twelve people voted to uphold the tribal court's decision and return Negron's truck. Eleven people voted against. "And if you believe that was actually the vote, I've got some property to sell you," says Barry Wax, Negron's current criminal defense attorney. Because the voting was conducted secretly, he suggests, the true tally may never be known. Although he has no proof, Wax suspects that Cypress announced the close vote favoring Negron in order to get rid of the case because it was beginning to attract too much notice A from the press, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and from Congressman Hastings's office. "This kind of attention is the last thing Billy Cypress wants," Wax contends, and by making the vote so close, he allowed Lehtinen and Vargas to save some face despite their defeat.

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