By Michael E. Miller
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Hubbard Jones is also ashamed. For the past fifteen years, he has been leading kayak trips in the Bahamas. On April 13 he and a group were passing through a Fort Lauderdale security gate with fourteen carryon bags. Inside one of them were two Publix kitchen knives. His case is pending. "I'm embarrassed by the whole thing," he comments. "It's personally very upsetting. I'm not telling anyone about it." When it was suggested that it was nothing to be embarrassed about, he shot back: "You were not sitting there in handcuffs."
Most SoFla cases read the same. A person with no criminal record carried a gun or knife through security after forgetting it was in the carryon bag. He or she was stopped, cuffed, and checked by bomb-sniffing dogs. Some were taken to jail. Others weren't. Most of those arrested were charged with carrying concealed weapons, a misdemeanor. Generally prosecutors dropped charges, or the accused settled for community service. Of course, many stops don't generate reports, because travelers are simply warned and released.
From dozens of conversations with lawmen and travelers, it's clear that there isn't a set policy on imprisonment. That should disturb civil libertarians or anyone else who cares about individual rights.
Take the case of Gregory Sulava, one of only about a dozen foreign-born arrestees on the list. A Brooklyn limousine-company owner who was born in Russia and immigrated to the United States as a teenager, he arrived at Miami International Airport in February after traveling to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival.
After landing in Miami for a stopover, he passed through customs and walked toward his gate for the final leg of his trip home. At the security checkpoint, he watched as security personnel turned up a large scissors in the bag of a woman ahead of him. After a brief consultation, the workers confiscated it and let her pass.
Then came Sulava's turn. In his carryon luggage, the Russian, a chain smoker with a slight accent, had a tiny lighter with a one-inch folding knife that he had bought on the street in Brazil for fifty cents. He had passed through security multiple times with it and had stowed it during the flight from Rio to Miami. "This thing couldn't clip your fingernails," he says. "You can bend it with a thumbnail."
Still Sulava was held for five hours in the Miami-Dade County Jail before he raised bail. Then he spent $2500 on legal bills before settling with authorities for ten hours of community service, which he completed at his New York City-area synagogue. "I am six foot four and two hundred twenty pounds, but is that a good reason to arrest me?" he asks. "Or maybe this is just racial profiling because I am a foreigner."
Miami-Dade Police's Hammerschmidt acknowledges that authorities might have "gone overboard" early on, but maintains times have changed. An increasing proportion of offenders are simply given warnings. But officers sometimes decide to charge people who are particularly uncooperative, he says, much like the writing of a traffic ticket. "As time has moved on, we have moved away from charging. But you have people who get indignant, and you have to drive home the point."
The change, if it's actually occurring, is too late for many, responds Richard Hersh, a pilot and lawyer who's representing Tsounis, the Swedish businessman. "I don't have a problem with good security," he says. "I have a problem with mindless security. There needs to be better notice of what's prohibited, and [there ought to be] consistent enforcement."