Copping an Attitude

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

Ignacio Fiterre is about as unlikely a candidate to assault a police officer as one could find. The 52-year-old well-dressed industrial engineer is short and pudgy, his thinning hair a distinguished shade of gray -- hardly the image of a menace to society. In his spare time, in fact, he volunteers with the Coral Gables Police Department's mobile patrol program. So Fiterre was understandably shocked and more than a little outraged when he found himself pushed up against his car, his arms immobilized by police handcuffs that bit painfully into his wrists. His indignation at what he describes as a terrifying and humiliating experience has spurred investigations by three governmental agencies and is instigating procedural changes at the Metro-Dade Police Department.

On Sunday, September 15, 1996, at approximately 5:00 p.m., Fiterre and his wife were driving north on the Palmetto Expressway in their 1984 white Mercedes-Benz. According to Fiterre, a late-model blue Chrysler merging from the Dolphin Expressway abruptly cut in front of him. Off-duty Metro-Dade Police Ofcr. Alejandro Celaya sat on the passenger side, his wife at the wheel. (In an interview with police investigators four months after the incident, Celaya said his wife accelerated and merged into the flow of traffic without incident.)

Fiterre reacted by switching lanes, driving past the officer's car, and returning to the right lane as they both exited the expressway at NW 25th Street. In Celaya's sworn testimony, he claimed Fiterre abruptly cut in front of his vehicle while moving into the right lane, forcing his wife to slam on the brakes to avoid colliding with the Mercedes.

When they reached a traffic light, Celaya's car pulled along the driver's side of Fiterre's. The officer, dressed in civilian clothes, flashed his badge. Celaya told police investigators that Fiterre responded by "flipping him off," which consisted of placing his hand under his chin and "thrusting it forward."

Fiterre says he put his fingers to his mouth, kissed the tips, then opened his hand. This gesture, he insists, was meant to placate Celaya, not antagonize him. Regardless, he had no intention of stopping if that is what Celaya had intended by showing his badge. As a volunteer with the Coral Gables mobile patrol program, Fiterre says, he was taught that a driver should never stop when someone in street clothes and in an ordinary car displays a police badge. (Celaya claimed to investigators that it was not his goal to stop Fiterre, which would have violated department policy for off-duty officers.)

Undeterred, Fiterre continued on to his destination -- the main post office on NW 72nd Avenue. Celaya testified that he told his wife to follow Fiterre; she pulled into a parking space in front of the post office and they waited as the Fiterres went inside. Upon discovering there was no Sunday express mail at the main branch, the Fiterres decided to try the post office at Miami International Airport.

In the vicinity of NW Sixteenth Street, Fiterre glanced in his rearview mirror and discovered with alarm that the blue Chrysler was trailing him. Fearful that he and his wife were about to be robbed, Fiterre called 911 on his cellular phone. A dispatcher told him to drive as fast as he could to the nearest police station, in this case the Doral station located at 9101 NW 25th St.

Around the same time, Celaya used his own cellular phone to report a felony -- automotive assault against a police officer. Celaya provided the tag number and the location of the Mercedes and requested that other units respond and stop Fiterre's vehicle.

Fiterre executed a quick U-turn and bolted through a stop sign in his haste to get to the safety of the Doral station. When a police cruiser with flashing lights pulled behind him, he breathed a sigh of relief, believing an efficient Metro-Dade Police Department had responded quickly to his 911 call. After pulling over, he stepped out of his car to talk with the two uniformed officers.

But instead of acting the part of rescuer, one of the officers shouted at a bewildered Fiterre, grabbed him roughly, shoved him against his car, and slapped handcuffs on his wrists. (The experience so traumatized Fiterre's wife she would not allow her husband's photograph to appear in this story for fear of retribution.)

According to testimony given to investigators by the police officers involved, Celaya's car pulled up to the scene. Soon another police cruiser joined the group. The two officers from the second car queried Celaya while a supervisor who had traveled with them observed from across the street.

At least one of the police officers, later interviewed by Metro's internal affairs unit, said Celaya told him that Fiterre tried to run him off the road. Though Celaya demanded that the officer arrest Fiterre, his colleagues decided there was no basis to do so and they uncuffed him. They did, however, write Fiterre a reckless-driving citation for following too closely, running a stop sign, and exceeding the speed limit. To no avail Fiterre protested that he drove fast only at the suggestion of the police dispatcher in an effort to flee his pursuer.

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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