By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Harris drives to a street corner well-known as a hot spot: NW Sixteenth Avenue and 47th Street. Day and night young black men can be found at this intersection, talking, joking, maybe selling some drugs. So disreputable is the corner that many police officers will not venture there alone. It has been the site of several recent drug sweeps, in which a number of officers suddenly converge from different directions, park their squad cars so as to block traffic and create a barrier, then begin frisking and questioning all who have been trapped inside. Individuals found with guns or drugs are arrested; others are charged with misdemeanors such as possession of stolen milk crates.
According to Lieutenant Williams, local residents have demanded that kind of tough law enforcement. RRonni Harris has her own perspective: "Most of the businesses close at eleven. People have got no legitimate purpose for hanging out on the street."
But the drug-sweep tactic infuriates civil rights lawyers, who say it is a blatant violation of constitutional protections against random searches. It has also created a fair amount of ill will among the young men who hang at Sixteenth and 47th.
Despite being alone, Harris confidently approaches the group -- about a dozen youths -- and points out a young man wearing an oversize T-shirt and baggy shorts that reach below his knees. "A confidential informant tells us he's the one who's been selling most of the crack in this neighborhood," she says. "But we can never catch him with the stuff."
Harris motions for him to approach her squad car. He smiles, nods expectantly at Harris, and bounds over. "Would you like to sit down and chat a little while?" she asks him sweetly while opening the back door like a chauffeur.
"Sure, officer," he answers, and sits on the car seat, legs dangling outside.
"How come I always see you standing out here?"
"I'm just visiting my girlfriend," he says sheepishly.
"Your girlfriend? Where does she live?"
"She lives in that house, right over there," he says, pointing vaguely toward a row of homes.
"Shut the door," Harris abruptly commands. "We're going for a little ride."
He shuts the door, but as soon as he realizes he's a prisoner -- the rear doors of squad cars lock automatically -- he protests. But to no avail.
"Where we going, officer?" he asks.
"I'm going to take you home. Where do you live?"
He offers an address as Harris heads over to NW Seventeenth Avenue, where she drives one block then circles back and repeats the circuit.
"Wait a minute, officer!" he cries. "I know my rights. You can't put me in jail!"
"Nobody's taking you anywhere. We're just going to ride around here for a few minutes," Harris says.
"I know my Fourteenth Amendment rights," he repeats, accurately citing the law that prohibits the government from denying an individual life, liberty, or property without due process.
Harris radios for two other officers to join her and then pulls into an abandoned gas station. A buddy, Ofcr. Karen Cooper, arrives first and gets out of her squad car. Harris also steps out, opens her back door, and pulls out her young suspect. She cursorily pats down his pockets, thighs, and calves.
"You give me your name and your badge number!" he shouts. "I know my rights! I ain't done nothing. You got no reason to hold me. You all are just hired guns for the crackers."
"I'll write down my name and give it to you!" Harris angrily shouts back. Officer Ricardo John, Jr., pulls up, parks his car in front of Harris's, and frisks her captive once again, checking his pockets and trousers more thoroughly. John, who stands more than six feet tall and weighs at least 200 pounds, transferred to Model City from the central district a year ago after hearing a resident complain in Spanish about his race (he is black), assuming he couldn't understand the language.
In contrast to his intimidating size, John's demeanor is not threatening -- he talks quietly, soothingly, and soon Harris's charge calms down.
Florida's stop-and-frisk law gives police broad latitude to search someone for guns or drugs. Officers who encounter individuals in "circumstances which reasonably indicate" that a crime is taking place can temporarily detain them to determine their identity. Officers who believe their lives are threatened can search a suspect "only to the extent necessary" to find a weapon. Though the courts are constantly redefining the statute, officers can pretty much use their discretion in determining when to perform a superficial search.
The law is more explicit, however, about holding someone against his will: "No person should be temporarily detained longer than is necessary to effect the purposes of ... ascertaining his identity and the circumstances that led the officer to believe that he had committed, was committing or was about to commit a crime."
"I don't want to go riding around in no police car," Harris's guest protests after noticing that a couple of his friends are watching from a distance. "People going to think I'm a snitch."