Guilty with an Explanation

Does South Beach have a parking problem? Dade County Court Judge Raphael Steinhardt would probably say so.

According to an incident report filed by two Miami Beach bicycle cops, the judge became irate after his green Corvette acquired a twenty-dollar handwritten hood ornament for parking in a no-parking zone across from the ever-bustling News Cafe on Ocean Drive. The officer who wrote the ticket, Andrew Dillon, reported that Steinhardt sought him out and "gave me an indication of possible future reprisal."

Steinhardt, who presides at the Miami Beach District Court of Dade County on Washington Avenue, and who therefore has occasion to see the city's police officers in a formal setting, remembers the ticket. While he admits that he parked illegally while he zipped into the cafe to buy his daughter a souvenir cap, he denies that he launched into any threatening tirades.

According to Dillon and fellow bicycle patrolman Ronald Shimko, both of whom recorded their eyewitness accounts in a three-page report filed after the March 28 incident, Steinhardt's response to the citation was less than judicious. Shimko wrote that Steinhardt drove up to him a block away from the News Cafe and proceeded to voice his displeasure: "His honor appeared upset and produced a 'Metropolitan Dade County Uniform Parking Complaint and Ticket' issued by Officer Dillon. Reporting officer asked if Judge Steinhardt wished to speak with Officer Dillon personally. His honor stated, 'No, I'll pay the ticket'...His honor appeared agitated and used foul language to express his dissatisfaction with Officer Dillon's action. In particular, Judge Steinhardt noted that he attempted to speak with Officer Dillon but 'he fucking rode away'...His honor referred to the complaint as a 'fucking ticket.'"

About twenty minutes later, according to the incident report, Steinhardt pulled up in his 'Vette alongside both Shimko and Dillon, who were engaged in conversation. Dillon would later report that "Steinhardt looked very angry and stared at me for about five seconds. Then Steinhardt stated, 'OK, Dillon. OK.' The tone and expression from Steinhardt when he said 'OK, Dillon. OK,' gave me the indication of a possible future reprisal." In his writeup, Shimko concurred: "Judge Steinhardt seemed to imply by his action that the issue of the parking citation was not finished."

Steinhardt says he first heard of the existence of the report when he was contacted for comment by New Times. "He gave me a ticket, I paid it the next day, and the case is closed," the judge recalls. "I wasn't angry." He speculates that the citation was issued in an effort to embarrass him; he says the officer must have known the identity of the car's owner because he always keeps a business card tucked in the corner of his license-plate frame. (Dillon admits he saw the card but denies he sought to humiliate the judge.) And if that was the case, Steinhardt contends, the attempt backfired. "Twenty officers have come to me and offered to pay for the ticket," he claims. "The citation offends me because of my rapport with the police officers. I think I go out of my way to help these people."

The judge, who during his three years on the bench has shown a decided predilection for self-promotion, would prefer to talk about his work. "All I do is kill myself trying to do a good job," he sighs. "I handle 30,000 cases a year. I try to stay totally down the middle. I think I'm doing a great job." Unprompted, he catalogues his achievements in the public sector: instituting a free legal clinic, donating countless hours of his time to speak at schools, reducing jail overcrowding, expanding community-service sentencing programs. And, the 54-year-old jurist offers, he's a loyal friend to police officers countywide and a member of the Police Officer Assistance Trust, which raises money to benefit police officers and their families in times of crisis. In fact, he's currently helping to raise money to rebuild the Dade County Police Memorial in Tropical Park. "Police officers know that if they need anything," Steinhardt concludes, "I'm there for them."

A five-year member of the police force, Dillon says his contact with the judge before the incident had been limited to occasional court appearances. "I don't even know the guy," he says, adding that he and Shimko wrote their joint report at the suggestion of his supervisor, Sgt. George Navarro, and that dozens of his colleagues have since voiced their support of his judgment in citing the judge. "Everyone who's mentioned anything says he deserved it," Dillon says. Receiving a parking ticket is an unpleasant experience, he observes, but most people accept the penalty a little more graciously: "They don't come by and get mad at you and give you threatening stare-downs."

Officially the incident has been tucked away in police department files. "Not everything merits a full-blown investigation," comments department spokesman Al Boza, "but many incidents are recorded in case something happens in the future." The matter, however, has stoked the cop shop's gossip furnace; one popular rumor has Steinhardt threatening to rescind an offer of a $10,000 donation to the police memorial fund. A spokesman for the Police Officer Assistance Trust says that as far as he knows Steinhardt's pledge of "a large contribution" still stands.


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