A Collision Course

Drunk drivers are getting away with it these days, thanks to peevish Miami-Dade cops

At Wet Willie's bar on Ocean Drive, a cheery Mike Goodwin, age 28, holds a big strawberry daiquiri in one hand and snakes the other through the air to imitate a drunk driver weaving through traffic. "If a guy's doing this down the road, take him to jail!" he exclaims. His friend Jesse Bakker, age 23, notes that he has never been pulled over for driving under the influence (DUI) and knocks on the shiny wooden bar.

Not to worry. The risk of arrest for DUI in much of Miami-Dade County is the lowest in years. Busts have plummeted, not because there are fewer drunk or high drivers but because cops are making fewer stops. In fact, traffic deaths attributed to alcohol or illegal drugs are up slightly in the county despite a nationwide decline.

DUI collars by the Miami-Dade Police Department have slumped like a souse after his tenth shot of tequila -- from 2553 in 1996 to 1653 last year, according to state statistics released in June. That's a 35 percent drop. This year's numbers are even lower so far. By contrast, arrests by Broward County police departments rose ten percent, from 5532 to 5937 between 1996 and 1997.

Why the DUI dip in Dade? One explanation that even top police officials cite: Officers are still peeved about being portrayed as conniving money grubbers by the Miami Herald's "Collars for Dollars" articles last year. And they are annoyed at State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle for letting cops take all the heat from that five-part series.

The investigation, published in July 1997, revealed that officers were earning tens of thousands of dollars in overtime pay to appear in court on DUI cases. Many times their testimony, and thus taxpayer expense, was unnecessary. According to the Herald, several officers would routinely back up others making a DUI arrest. Because the back-up cops were witnesses, they would all be required to appear in court. The cops/witnesses often spent two days per week awaiting and attending hearings.

In response to the Herald series, the Miami-Dade Police Department disciplined 32 officers and demoted four supervisors. "We're always the scapegoats. We're always the punching bags," complains John Rivera, president of the Dade County Police Benevolent Association. He says officers have indeed cut back on DUI stops because they are still upset about the bad press and the officers' punishment. "If we do too many DUIs we're criticized for being money-hungry. If we don't do enough, then our performance evaluations are reflective of a lazy cop," he huffs. "There's a saying: 'No work, no problems.'"

Jose Zarraga, head of the department's DUI office, says the drop in arrests has been a "hot issue" among his colleagues for months. "Boy oh boy," he guffaws. "I don't want it to seem like I'm insulting my fellow officers. For whatever reasons the officers had, they just felt it was incumbent on them not to make DUI arrests." The Herald series "impacted the officers considerably," he observes.

Soon after the articles appeared, Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez ordered his supervisors to limit the number of cops backing up DUI arrests, says Zarraga. And prosecutors began subpoenaing fewer of them. Moreover, some lieutenants, captains, and majors have "gone overboard" by ordering their subordinates not to make any DUI stops, "which is itself a violation" of the law, he laments. "That's unconscionable."

Zarraga remembers riding the DUI gravy train two years ago. The midnight shift offered the best chance to cash in on such arrests, he explains. It was prime time for finding wasted drivers. And at shift's end in the early morning, he would head to the county courthouse for appearances by DUI defendants arrested months before. Zarraga concedes it was a lucrative -- though sleep-depriving -- system. In 1996 DUI-induced overtime inflated his $58,000 base salary to about $87,000. He now earns approximately $62,000 in his administrative job.

The officers are particularly miffed at Rundle. Rivera and Zarraga say the vast majority of those caught up in the scandal were just following Rundle's orders to appear in court. "What the Herald failed to say is that the officers continued to come to court because the state attorney's office continued to subpoena them," Zarraga notes.

"It's the prosecutors' job to filter out what they need or what they don't need in court," Rivera rails. "The state attorney herself was a coward in not stepping forward and taking a stance on behalf of the officers." Replies Rundle: "It wasn't a case of backing someone or not backing someone. Critics may say what they like, but the previous system was inefficient and wasted taxpayer dollars."

It's not just Miami-Dade cops who have retreated from the DUI circuit. Such arrests by several other police agencies in the county are also markedly lower: Florida Highway Patrol, down 40 percent. Hialeah Police Department, down 30 percent. Miami Police Department, down 25 percent. Two exceptions are the Miami Beach and North Miami Beach forces, which managed to make slightly more DUI arrests last year than in 1996.

Meanwhile drunk driving foes are becoming angrier. Nationwide deaths from alcohol-related crashes fell six percent in 1997. Not in Miami-Dade. Last year 59 people died in the 2429 local crashes that were deemed alcohol-related. In 1996 there were 56 such deaths.

According to Susan Isenberg, president of the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Miami-Dade police have ignored the problem for years. She is pushing for creation of a squad to target drunk drivers. "They have a special squad for graffiti. I mean, give me a break!" Isenberg moans. Her seventeen-year-old son Chris Young was killed in Coconut Grove in 1986 after hitching a ride with a drunk who crashed.

But more drivers may be blowing into the Miami-Dade department's eighteen Breathalyzers soon. Zarraga says he is trying "remotivate" officers to end their de facto boycott. And the department is adding a new DUI enforcement squad, consisting of six officers and a supervisor, that is scheduled to hit the roadways September 14.

Boozers beware. "We'll try to avoid force," says Zarraga. "But one way or another we're going to get them out of the car.

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