Copping an Attitude

What happens when the object of your road rage turns out to be an off-duty police officer? Bad things.

The supervisor at the scene then asked Fiterre if he wanted to file a complaint against Celaya with internal affairs at the Doral station. He did. While at the station, Fiterre complained of cut wrists and a swelling bruise on his elbow where police had banged him against his car. (The county eventually paid Fiterre $10,000 in damages for the injuries.)

Over the next several months, Fiterre went to court five times to contest his traffic ticket. Officer Celaya showed up each time, and Fiterre watched as the policeman and the state prosecutor conferred privately. Each time the judge postponed the case at the request of the prosecutor. "I think he hoped I would eventually stop coming to court," Fiterre speculates, referring to Celaya.

Finally, at his sixth appearance, Fiterre brought along his brother-in-law, an attorney, who brokered a deal whereby Fiterre pled no contest to the traffic violation after assurances there would be no insurance repercussions, no traffic school, and no court costs. "The state attorney protested," Fiterre remembers, "but I think the judge wanted to end the case."

He says he wishes he could have explained to that judge the reason he was driving recklessly, but he believed he couldn't -- because the police officer's own department had forbidden him from talking about the case.

Any individual whose complaint to Metro-Dade Police internal affairs prompts an investigation receives a letter that reads in part: "You are prohibited from discussing this case with anyone other than the designated departmental personnel who will investigate this case...." The letter cites Florida Statute 112.533(3), which forbids disclosure of information "obtained pursuant to the agency's investigation" until it becomes public record. The statute concludes by warning that violation constitutes a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.

For the law-abiding Fiterre, the language was unambiguous: "I was under orders that I couldn't tell anybody" -- including the judge hearing his traffic case. Metro police legal adviser Thomas Guilfoyle agrees the internal affairs letter could be confusing, but Fiterre's reticence to confide in a judge, he says, was "a little ridiculous."

Internal affairs concluded its investigation on March 21, 1997, and found that Fiterre's complaint was justified. Celaya's punishment: a letter of reprimand, the minimum an officer can receive. "Your actions displayed extremely poor judgment and placed you and your spouse at unnecessary risk," police officials wrote. "This incident reflected poorly on the department, and similar incidents will not be tolerated."

Fiterre was not satisfied. Celaya, he believed, should have been disciplined for what he contends was the false allegation he had tried to assault him with his car. "My concern is that an officer that behaves as this man did can damage a lot of people," he asserts.

In his search for justice, Fiterre had earlier contacted the county's quasi-governmental Independent Review Panel. When internal affairs concluded its investigation, the IRP took up the case and the panel agreed that Celaya's actions seemed to warrant more severe punishment. "The lightest form of discipline is not appropriate when you have such a serious offense against a citizen," insists Eduardo Diaz, the IRP's executive director.

In a letter to police authorities, the IRP argued that a simple reprimand was not sufficient. Metro-Dade Police Department director Carlos Alvarez replied that under the county's agreement with the police union, disciplinary action for complaints is progressive. As Celaya had not had two or more sustained complaints in the previous two years, he could not be reprimanded more severely.

Last week the IRP, still concerned that Celaya had abused his authority, forwarded the case to the Dade State Attorney's Office. (As of this past Friday, prosecutors had not yet received the referral.) The IRP also expressed concern that Metro's internal affairs warning against discussion of pending cases amounts to a gag order and is a violation of Fiterre's First Amendment rights. Edward Guedes, a lawyer and chairman of the IRP, asked the police department to revise the letter to make clear that complainants may speak to the IRP and file lawsuits if they choose. In addition, the IRP asked the police to specify how long such a gag order would last.

Metro agreed to change the letter to read, in part: "You are restricted by state statue from discussing this case with anyone other than the designated departmental personnel who will investigate the allegation(s). This does not, however, prohibit you from discussing events under investigation with your attorney or other representative, in furtherance of any litigation arising from the same incident(s)...."

Under the new phrasing, Fiterre presumably could have explained to the judge the particulars of his traffic ticket, but he still would have been unable to share the story with the IRP -- or a newspaper, or even his next-door neighbor. Says the IRP's Diaz: "Although the change was in fact important, it doesn't solve the problem."

Police legal adviser Thomas Guilfoyle agrees. "We figured we could probably do this better," he says. He and Assistant County Attorney Ronald Bernstein are preparing yet another draft of the letter they hope will make clear that the prohibition should last only as long as the investigation is still open. "They aren't supposed to talk about what occurs in the investigation," he clarifies. "They can talk about the event itself."

For the articulate and thoughtful Fiterre the entire experience has been overwhelming. "It seemed like [Celaya] had a personal vendetta against me," he says, "as hard as it is to believe.

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