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Theo Karantsalis had a nice little passport-photo business in downtown Hialeah, about a block from city hall. Since Karantsalis is an outgoing guy, given to philosophical discourse, he welcomed many interesting and eccentric people who also liked to shoot the breeze and who eventually got over the fact that Karantsalis was not Cuban or even Hispanic or even from Florida (Greek, grew up in the San Francisco area, does speak Spanish). Karantsalis's shop, Miami Passport Photo, was one of the urban gathering places featured in Ray Oldenburg's book of essays Celebrating the Third Place.
Since Miami Passport was in a part of Hialeah that is home to many assisted living facilities, and halfway houses, and abandoned buildings, Karantsalis also became familiar with visitors from the street, not all of whom were worth knowing. This past May 1 a young machete-wielding man got into an altercation with one of Karantsalis's customers. Karantsalis called 911 and proudly recalls he then "effected a citizen's arrest" of the twenty-year-old intruder, holding him at bay with a BB gun that looked like a genuine firearm.
But to Hialeah Police Ofcr. Cedric Philpot it looked like Karantsalis was attacking the addled kid, who has a long record of arrests for assault and battery, among other felonies (and who had allegedly tossed the machete outside to a friend to hide in a nearby vacant lot). Philpot, with the help of several other officers, arrested both men, who spent the night in the same jail cell.
And that's how Karantsalis's passport-photo business closed down and his hialeahsucks.com Website started up, and why the City of Hialeah is facing a lawsuit in small-claims court, and partly what prompted Karantsalis to write a book called Theo's Miami Guide to Sealing and Expunging Your Criminal Record(due out this November).
"I have to give the people what they want and what they need, and that's what most folks need down here," declares Karantsalis, not joking. He promptly saw to it that the felony charge against him was dropped and erased from the Miami-Dade County criminal database. Now 40 years old, tall with an angular jaw and close-cropped curly hair, Karantsalis (pronounced care-ant-sall-is) looks like the no-nonsense United States Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector he once was, but he speaks in a soft, inquiring voice and has a distinctly unbureaucratic manner.
Karantsalis has just finished another book, this one titled Theo's Guide to Kicking Ass in Small-Claims Court. He says it will be released any day now by the vanity press 1stBooks Library. Kicking Ass is the product of a decade of trial and error. Karantsalis has sued everyone from Janet Reno to Miami Parking Systems -- all in small-claims court, where procedural rules are simpler and winning doesn't require a high-priced lawyer. (Karantsalis's 1994 suit against Reno, an outgrowth of his INS job, was an anomaly. Transferred to federal court in San Francisco, it resulted in a settlement that Karantsalis says "paid for graduate school.")
His most recent targets have included several Hialeah cops, though so far he hasn't kicked much police ass in small-claims court. Karantsalis sued Ofcr. Peter Davila in 2000 because the officer's $400 check, partial payment for a used patrol car, bounced. (Karantsalis buys merchandise at police auctions and resells it.) "I got a little of the money back because [Davila] had to go to that school for bad-check writers the State Attorney's Office offers," Karantsalis remembers. "But when I tried to get the rest, I was told to wait in line." Davila no doubt had weightier matters on his mind, such as the federal drug-money laundering charge that eventually landed him in prison.
Another small-claims case took an unexpected turn. In 2000 Hialeah Ofcr. Glenn Rice, on a disturbance call to Karantsalis's shop, referred to him as a "fucking fruitcake." Karantsalis, alleging Rice "called me every name in the book," sought damages from the veteran officer in small-claims court.
"Theo shouldn't have sued [Rice] personally," reasons assistant Hialeah city attorney Rafael Granado. "If it's a civil matter, the statute says if the incident was during the course of employment, you must sue the government entity, not the individual officer. In the [Rice] case I went and talked to Theo and asked him: 'What will make you feel better?' I said we didn't do anything wrong, so he's not getting an apology."
Karantsalis, who earned his master's degree at the University of Miami in liberal studies and kept copies of Norton's Anthology of English Literature at his shop, figured it was really a lack of education that caused cops to insult and mistreat citizens. "So I asked the city to purchase books for the [Hialeah] police officers," Karantsalis explains, "and I was going to reach into my own pocket and match their contribution and provide the officers with the great classics of literature. But the city attorney said don't do that; they won't read them. So we donated $400 worth of books to the Hialeah library. I also wanted [HPD officers] to read a poem at roll call."
Every day for a week Rice stood up at roll call and read with a straight face: "I shall pass this way but once; any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."