On the evening of February 23, some twenty law school students from Nova and St. Thomas universities convened at Dino's Upper Deck, the bar atop Dino to Sushiya, a year-old restaurant at 11220 Biscayne Blvd. It was supposed to be a casual get-together. A little beer. A little billiards. And a little music, courtesy of the band Fifth Circuit Split, two of whose three members are law school students. What the budding attorneys got instead was an abrupt lesson in criminal justice -- Dade County style.
"We were just hanging out between sets, when all of sudden there's this commotion at the door," recalls Ryan Rothenberg, a first-year student at Nova. "Then all these figures in black masks come running through the bar. They've got guns drawn and they start screaming, 'Up against the wall! Everyone get your hands against the wall!' Within about ten seconds, the place was filled with cops."
At first some of the students thought the midnight raid was intended to nail underage drinkers. But a phalanx of cops made a beeline for one table in particular, and proceeded to search each of patrons there A thoroughly. Several small plastic bags were dumped on a nearby pool table. Tests would later determine them to contain cocaine and marijuana. The men were quickly led away. Everyone else, about 60 patrons in all, was left standing with hands against the wall.
For the next hour, they were searched repeatedly by two dozen officers, some of whom were in uniform, others in plainclothes. Anyone needing to go to the bathroom was subjected to a strip search. The police also ran background checks on those present and brought in a dog to sniff out drugs.
"The dog was actually quite entertaining, until it started sniffing at everyone's crotch," recalls one of Rothenberg's law school buddies, who wished to remain anonymous. "They even had the dog on top of the pool tables, smelling in the pockets for drugs."
According to police records, none of the law students was arrested. They did, however, suffer sore arms. "You don't realize how hard it is to hold your arms against a wall for an hour until you're forced to do it," Rothenberg observes.
Eventually the patrons were allowed to leave the restaurant -- one by one. A small squad of cops, along with their vehicles, stood guard outside, making sure only those given clearance exited the bar.
"The whole scene was just so bizarre," says another aspiring lawyer. "At one point I said to one of the cops, 'You know, this is more or less just a law school party.' He didn't have any response to that. Maybe he grunted, but that was about it."
What the students could not have known was that the raid on Dino's Upper Deck was the culmination of a three-month undercover operation led by the state's Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco (ABT), with assistance from Metro-Dade police. According to ABT records, the investigation began this past November 14, when the agency received an anonymous complaint alleging that drugs were being sold at the bar.
On January 13, an undercover ABT agent bought a small amount of cocaine from a man known as Jimmy, a regular patron at Dino's Upper Deck. The next night, Jimmy sold an undercover cop from Metro-Dade more cocaine. On both nights, agents noted, they saw obviously underage customers drinking alcohol on the premises.
ABT records show that over the next month, undercover agents made seven more drug purchases at Dino's Upper Deck. In most instances, Jimmy was the salesman. But the agents also made buys from a second patron known as David and a manager known as Louie.
In late February, it was decided that a raid was in order. "We knew they drew a crowd on Friday nights, so that's when we went in," says Sgt. C. Houston, the ABT agent who supervised the operation.
The effort yielded four arrests: 26-year-old James Walter Hall (a.k.a. Jimmy), 20-year-old Michael David Castellano (a.k.a. David), 46-year-old Luis Ruiz (a.k.a. Louie), and 24-year-old Russell Augustine Garcia. The Dade State Attorney's Office has filed charges against all four men, whose cases are still pending. Hall and Ruiz are charged with sale and possession of cocaine, Garcia with sale and possession of marijuana, and Castellano with sale and possession of both substances. Police records indicate Hall and Garcia have both been arrested previously, Garcia for drug sales and grand theft, Hall for battery and forgery.
On the night of the raid, ABT officials also served an emergency order to suspend the liquor license held by Moca, Inc., the corporation that runs both Dino to Sushiya and Dino's Upper Deck. The restaurant and bar recently closed, and the partners are now locked in a legal battle that appears to have predated the recent troubles at the location.
Attorney Steven Butter says his client, Josephine Carlozzi, ran Dino to Sushiya and had nothing to do with the bar upstairs. Butter confirms Carlozzi's husband Luciano Mora was arrested for drug trafficking back in 1980 and served time in prison. But he says any questions about illegal activities should be referred to Al Larrivee, the partner who ran Dino's Upper Deck.
"Luciano is a waiter in the restaurant, but he had nothing whatsoever to do with the incident and knew nothing about what was going on in Al's bar," Butter declares. "I think it is unfair for the New Times to even mention his name and bring up a past that he has fully paid for."
Troy Avera, Larrivee's lawyer, refuses to comment on Butter's allegations, citing the possibility of litigation.
Dino to Sushiya, which served both Italian and Japanese cuisine, could still operate as a restaurant, albeit without a liquor license. But Butter stresses that his clients have chosen to close the doors instead. "Actually, we think this was sort of a blessing in disguise, because it will allow Josephine to sever herself from the people upstairs."
Among other issues, the closure leaves unresolved a debt of $1800 in delinquent surcharge taxes owed to the State of Florida by Moca, Inc.
The legal squabbling to come is of little interest to Ryan Rothenberg and his pals. They are still suffering the aftershocks of their recent and unexpected cameo in the Drug War.
"It's made me a lot more aware of my rights," says Rothenberg, who was sufficiently miffed that he recently sent an unsolicited letter of protest to the Miami Herald. "I did a little legal research on the topic after all this and I now know that my rights were violated. The police had no right to go through my pockets unless they have a search warrant for me specifically. Of course, I wasn't going to say anything at the time because I was scared to death, and I didn't want to get beat up."
Robyn Blumner, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, says Rothenberg is correct. "The police have the right to pat citizens down for weapons, but they need objective, individualized suspicion that a person is involved in illegal activities to do anything more exhaustive. It's not enough that these people were simply in a bar where drug deals have been made.
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"It was also illegal for them to be detained," Blumner adds. "In this case, it sounds like the police flouted basic constitutional principles. I recommend these law students give us a call."
"Everyone was patted down for the protection of our own people," says C. Houston, who was present during the raid. "As far as further searches, I'm not aware." Houston adds that most patrons in the bar were not arrested, but rather detained to check their identification.
Rothenberg's fellow students were more forgiving.
"On one level it was really scary. But it was also a good experience for a law school student, especially someone interested in criminal defense," says one of Rothenberg's classmates.
Opined a third, "They made me stand there for an hour and they wouldn't let me finish my beer. But at the same time I didn't have to pay my bill, so I guess it all evens out in the end.