Carmen (Among Others) vs. Carmen (Among Others)

Hialeah residents Omar and Carmen Corzo sue Councilwoman Carmen Caldwell (among others) for violating their civil rights

Omar Corzo complained to then-Mayor Julio Martinez, but the mayor responded that he had no leverage with the police department and suggested the Corzos go directly to Chief Bolanos. (Martinez, who was engaged in a bitter feud with Bolanos during his term, admits in his deposition that he had "lost control" of the police department and that efforts on his part to curtail Caldwell's police-related activities were thwarted by the chief.)

The Corzos and their four children trooped to the chief's office for an emotional meeting in November 1990. Accounts of the meeting differ, although both Omar Corzo and one officer who was present agree that Corzo and the officer wept. The Corzos contend that Bola*os told them they were being investigated for involvement in drugs and prostitution as a result of information gathered by Caldwell. The chief denies saying any such thing. The outcome of the meeting did seem to promise better times ahead, though: The Corzos were assured the police would not take sides, and a departmentwide memo was issued urging impartial conduct by any officers dispatched to the neighborhood.

But according to the Corzos, that didn't put a stop to the harassment from neighbors or from Caldwell herself. The Corzos sought help from numerous agencies, including the FBI, the Dade State Attorney's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (regarding the zoning complaints). No one believed them. They met with politically active local citizens who had beefs with city government. They contemplated taking legal action, but visited at least twenty lawyers over the course of several months before Alexander Kapetanakis, a Miami criminal defense attorney, agreed to take the case on a contingency basis.

Kapetanakis says he didn't believe the Corzos until after he'd had a private investigator make some inquiries. "If what they were saying was true, it was very scary," the lawyer says. "If it wasn't true, they were out of their heads." After two weeks, during which the investigator spoke with several police officers and others who claimed to have witnessed questionable behavior by Caldwell, Kapetanakis decided to back the Corzos.

"This isn't like a normal civil rights case," he says. "This is a political case. There's not a lot of case law where the aspect of civil rights is invoked to defend against politicians' abuse of power."

University of Miami law professor Donald Jones, a constitutional scholar who hasn't read the Corzo lawsuit, agrees it appears unusual for a federal action, partly because the alleged reasons for violation of civil rights don't fall under normal categories of equal protection, such as sex or race. Jones thinks the case is probably sound under the Constitution's due-process provisions, which, as he puts it, forbid using political power "to abuse an individual you don't like." But, adds the professor, "This is local politics at its worst. You've got all these hornets running around trying to kick the hornets' nest into federal court, God help them."

Councilman Guy Sanchez, who is a member of a council minority that generally opposes policies of the administration and who has supported Raul Martinez's perennial mayoral opponent Nilo Juri, has aligned himself with Julio Martinez behind the Corzos. In his deposition, Sanchez asserts that he, too, has been a victim of defamation efforts by Caldwell. In one instance several years ago, he alleges, his boss at the time confided that Caldwell had urged him to fire Sanchez because she'd learned he suffered from mental problems, had a criminal record, and was a homosexual -- all of which he says are false. She made the same comments to several police officers, Sanchez states, during his 1993 election campaign. Sanchez also testified that he has witnessed Caldwell giving orders to police officers.

Caldwell denies that she has ever given orders to or intimidated police officers, or that she made any of the statements Sanchez attributes to her. "The whole thing has been a vendetta against the chief and me. Look at when this started: when politics was at its height, right before the 1993 elections, at the same time there was a war between the chief and Julio Martinez."

A former Florida Department of Law Enforcement bureau chief in Miami, Bolanos was installed as chief by Raul Martinez in 1987. There's nothing improper about Caldwell's use of a police radio or her access to public information contained on police computers, the chief insists. Further, he has never seen any indication she has abused her access to the police department nor the forum of Crime Watch neighborhood meetings. "I accept total responsibility for her actions," he concludes.

"[The defendants] want to make this a political thing," counters Omar Corzo, "but we're not going to let them get away with it in court. This is something that nobody should have had to go through. You have no idea how impotent you feel, like you're going to die."

Caldwell is equally confident she'll be vindicated. "The mental anguish alone they have put me through has been horrendous," she stresses. "How do you defend yourself from lies when [the plaintiffs] only interview people who have something against the police and the administration? I'll have my day in court. My whole philosophy has been that the truth will set you free.

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