Beyond the Call of Duty
Georgina Otero Lee drives a big green van for a living. She transports handicapped people around Dade County. Lately Lee has been driving with a suspended drivers license and is due to appear in court this Thursday on a careless-driving charge. Just one more nut on Miami's chock-full roads?
That was what Allan San Martin told Lee -- she recalls hearing the word "maniac" -- as he pulled her from the van one morning this past March. San Martin is a Miami Beach police officer; he had tailed Lee in his private car across the Julia Tuttle Causeway and about ten blocks south on Alton Road to write her that careless-driving ticket. Lee says she's not about to pay it. San Martin, she contends, deserved the ticket. But what can she do? The Miami Beach Police Department has cleared him of any impropriety in the matter. Still, no one has explained to Lee why it's proper for an out-of-uniform officer in a private vehicle to follow a woman traveling alone for close to five miles, open her car door when she stops, and pull her out by the arm.
The incident began on the morning of March 4. Lee, a driver for Metro Limo since 1975, says she had just dropped off her last passenger for the morning at the Veterans Administration Medical Center on NW Sixteenth Street. She was heading back to Miami Beach for another pickup, lumbering up the entrance ramp to SR 836 at Twelfth Avenue when she noticed a Jeep or a Bronco (some sort of all-terrain vehicle) right behind her van. It stayed on her tail, she says, as she entered the expressway and began crossing from the right lane to the left-lane exit for northbound I-95. As she was crossing into the far left lane, she heard an engine gunning and looked at her side mirror to see the mystery car pulling into the same lane. She swerved to the right. As they drew even, Lee says she rolled down her window and yelled at the driver, a young man in jeans and a white T-shirt: "Are you crazy?"
"Which was kind of a stupid thing to do nowadays," Lee admits, "but I was pissed." Her anger turned to apprehension, though, when the other driver slowed and eased in behind her. And stayed behind her, even when she exited I-95 and began trundling across the causeway at 30 miles per hour, a speed she thought would surely discourage him. As she reached Miami Beach she turned onto Alton Road heading south. "That's when I really got scared," she recalls. She got on her van's radio and told the dispatcher to call the police. (Lee's dispatcher says he did call the police -- twice.)
Instead of heading to her next job, Lee decided to stop at her sister's home on Alton Road; she knew someone would be around. "I was so darn scared," Lee recounts. "I thought this guy was going to kill me." She began beeping the van's horn as she reached the driveway.
Inside, in their second floor bedrooms, Lee's niece and brother were awakened by the noise. It was about nine o'clock. "I saw my aunt's van coming in and some guy hauling ass behind her," remembers Isabella Quinn, Lee's niece. "This guy got out of his car and rushed over to her, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her out. Basically it kind of scared me that the guy did that, because I didn't know who he was. I automatically picked up the phone -- I sleep with the phone by my bed -- and I called the police."
Luis Otero, Lee's brother, was watching the scene from another upstairs window. The stranger wasn't acting violently, Otero says, but he appeared extremely angry. Otero's first inclination was to grab his dog and a baseball bat and run downstairs. "All I thought was, my sister's in danger," he recalls. "Had I owned a gun, that's probably what I would have done. Then I realized he was a cop."
The giveaway to Otero was the ticket book San Martin brandished. After pulling Lee from her van, informing her he was a police officer and accusing her of driving like a maniac, he walked back to his vehicle, promising to write her a ticket. "I went up to him," Lee remembers, "and I said, 'Listen, how could you possibly do this? You were the one who almost made me get myself killed.' He said, 'I don't want to talk to you.'"
San Martin didn't want to talk to New Times, either, but Miami Beach Police spokesman Howard Zeifman relates a different, though less detailed, account of the incident. San Martin, a four-year patrol officer who had been assigned to an office job while recuperating from injuries he'd received in an auto accident, was on his way to work that morning. He noticed Lee speeding and changing lanes "excessively, going back and forth like she was in a hurry," Zeifman explains. "He saw her commit traffic violations. Instead of writing her a ticket for reckless driving, which is a criminal offense, he wrote the ticket for the less serious charge of careless driving."
Lee, who has a clean driving record, didn't appreciate San Martin's restraint. She went to the police station and filed a complaint against him, alleging he failed to uphold police standards of courtesy, civility, and respect, and that he hadn't properly identified himself. The complaint wasn't serious enough to go to the department's internal affairs division, according to Zeifman. (Internal affairs generally handles the most serious allegations, although sometimes it will take on lesser complaints if they come directly to the department, police officers say.)
San Martin's case was assigned to a superior officer, Lt. Charles Press, in what is known in police parlance as a "shift investigation." Press took recorded statements from Lee and her niece Isabella Quinn, and interviewed San Martin. Lee and Quinn say they agreed to take lie detector tests but none was administered. Lt. Press did not speak with Luis Otero or with Lee's radio dispatcher. He concluded that Lee's allegations against San Martin were unsubstantiated. (Press was on vacation this past week and could not be reached for comment.)
Meanwhile Lee had pleaded innocent to her careless-driving charge and was waiting to get word of her court date. It was set for July 8, but she says she never received notice. When she didn't show, her license was suspended. She discovered that almost two weeks later when she called a friend at the courthouse. Now Lee has a new court date, though she hasn't paid the $25 fine to get her license suspension cleared; she is hoping the judge will wipe all the black marks off her record.
In his four years on the force, 38-year-old San Martin has been the subject of five separate internal affairs investigations, all related to allegations of "excessive use of physical force" or of "discourtesy" -- and all exonerating him. Those internal affairs cases don't include Lee's complaint, which is supposed to go into San Martin's personnel file; as of this past Friday, it still had not.
After any investigation is completed, the department routinely advises the complainant by mail of the outcome. Lee has not yet received a letter, although one was to be typed and mailed sometime this week, according to Cmdr. Robert Frame, head of the services division where San Martin was working at the time of the incident. Frame wasn't involved in the investigation and says he doesn't know why it has taken so long to notify Lee of the outcome.
Lee, who wants to know how the case was resolved before going to court this Thursday, called Lt. Charles Press about three weeks ago. She says he told her she should have gotten a letter and that her charges against the officer could not be substantiated. "And that was that," Lee says. "I told him something about wanting to continue this [complaint], and he said, 'Lots of luck.'
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.