By Michael E. Miller
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It's unlikely that on a Sunday afternoon in early March, as David Ettman drove a U-Haul truck full of debris deep into Chapman Field Park, he could have imagined the excursion would land him in jail. Yet little more than a month later, Metro-Dade police officers arrived at his doorstep and arrested him for what occurred that fateful day.
On March 8 Ettman, the former assistant director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM), was surprised at the scene by police and a solid-waste enforcement officer while in the act of dumping debris at the park, a popular recreation spot in South Dade. According to a police report, the former official had earlier attempted to deposit the waste at various county-operated trash stations, including one adjacent to the park. He was turned away, and his efforts raised suspicions among workers. (It is unlawful in Dade County to deposit commercial debris at a trash station without proper permits.)
Witnesses say Ettman told a worker at one trash station that the waste had come from his home, but when the worker asked to visit the residence for verification, he allegedly changed his story. That prompted the worker to contact a solid-waste enforcement officer, who then followed the truck as it entered Chapman Field and headed down a road through the park's mangroves and brush. The enforcement officer surreptitiously snapped photographs of Ettman's two laborers as they unloaded an estimated 760 cubic feet of tree stumps and limbs. A Metro-Dade police officer soon arrived.
When confronted, Ettman claimed he had a right to dump the material because of the previous work on a mangrove-restoration project he had performed at the site as a private environmental consultant. After phone conversations with officials from the Metro-Dade Park and Recreation Department, the police officer released Ettman pending further investigation, insisting only that he and his crew remove the debris.
Upon reviewing evidence gathered later by a Metro-Dade police detective, prosecutors from the State Attorney's Office concluded that Ettman did not have authorization to deposit the debris. "He didn't have permission to use it as his personal dump site," asserts Assistant State Attorney Harvey Hyman, who decided to request an arrest warrant. (Ettman's lawyer refused comment for this story.)
In what the prosecutor describes as a standard courtesy for those charged with violating Florida's Litter Law, Hyman offered the 43-year-old Ettman the opportunity to surrender and thus avoid the embarrassment of being publicly taken into custody. Hyman set the morning of Thursday, April 16, as the time for the booking, but Ettman didn't show up. That evening officers were dispatched to the environmental consultant's Miami Beach home, where they arrested him. After a night in the county jail, Ettman posted a $5000 bond and was released, according to a court spokesman.
At an April 27 arraignment, Ettman, through his attorney, pleaded not guilty to the charge of illegal dumping, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. A trial date has been set for June 22.
In most instances, Hyman says, he is not interested in taking dumping cases to trial, as most defendants have not acted with true criminal intent. "Our goal is education," he explains, "so that people don't do it any more." And in most instances, the violator ends up performing community service and/or paying a fine and escapes without a criminal record.
In Ettman's case, however, Hyman believes a harsher penalty would be appropriate because the former DERM executive's professional experience precludes a claim of ignorance. The prosecutor also says he believes that Ettman acted with criminal intent. (According to witness testimony given to Metro-Dade Det. Peter Caracilio, Ettman obtained a key to enter the park from a groundskeeper after telling him he needed it to perform a mangrove study for DERM.)
Although he won't ask for jail time, Hyman argues that Ettman should certainly be sentenced to probation so the violation will remain on his record. "He should be held to a higher standard," the prosecutor contends. "He knew better, and that's why I think it's more severe." Hyman adds that if he wins the case at trial, he'll also ask that Ettman perform community service for a period that could range from a minimum of 100 hours to a maximum of 1000.
If convicted, Ettman will most likely find himself visiting some of the county's most egregious illegal dump sites, where discarded automotive and building materials are silent testimony to those too lazy or too cheap to dispose of their waste properly. That is where violators of Florida's Litter Law are sent to do their community service.