Few black South Floridians enjoy the name recognition and high profile of Miami attorney H.T. Smith. A perennially rumored candidate for political office, Smith led the three-year Boycott Miami campaign that ended in May with a major agreement between Dade's business and civic leaders to narrow the economic disparity between whites and blacks. In July he was elected president of the National Bar Association, a group that represents 16,000 black attorneys across the country. So it was only fitting this past month, after the murder of German tourist Uwe-Wilhelm Rakebrand, that Smith should be invited to lead a civic anti-crime coalition.
And it was likewise appropriate, though strangely so, on the night of September 27 -- the very same night the Miami Herald presented him with a Spirit of Excellence Award in recognition of his service to the community -- that Smith should have an encounter that he says gave him a unique insight into Miami's crime problem and the way it is being handled.
Smith's version of events that night: He left the awards banquet at the Omni International Hotel at about 10:30 p.m. He hadn't had a drink all night, but as he slid behind the wheel of his burgundy 1983 Cadillac Seville, he was feeling pretty good about the honor and about his contributions toward making Miami a better place to live. Headed back to his offices and home on the west side of Overtown, he drove north on Biscayne Boulevard and made a left on NE Eighteenth Street. Near the intersection of NE Second Avenue, a City of Miami police officer pulled him over.
"He ordered me out of the car, and ordered me to sit on the hood," Smith recalls, adding that the cop, William Clayton, didn't tell him why he had been stopped. Neither did Smith ask. "Being a black man," the 47-year-old attorney says, "I know not to say anything to a police officer."
Smith sat on his hood for the next twenty minutes, at which point "at least three or four" additional police cars arrived. He says that during the powwow that ensued, he overheard a conversation between Clayton and a superior, Sgt. John Campbell, both of whom are white. "Campbell asked the officer why he stopped me," Smith remembers, "and Clayton said, 'He was driving a car like this through Overtown.' The sergeant looked at him with an expression on his face like, 'And? Okay, so what did he do?' Then Clayton said, 'I saw somebody leaning into the passenger side of the car.' When he said that, I said, 'You damn liar!'" According to Smith, no one had come near his car as he left the Omni, with the exception of a pedestrian who was simply walking along the sidewalk.
Smith says that after another huddle with his fellow officers, Clayton informed him of his option to undergo a sobriety test and that if he refused, it could be used as evidence against him. "I said, 'Evidence of what?' It was like Alice in Wonderland or A Clockwork Orange! I turned to Campbell, who I've known for twenty years, and said, 'Now you can see why black people have a difficult time dealing with the police. I've never been arrested for anything; you know I'm a lawyer. This officer stopped me because I'm black and I was driving a Cadillac through this neighborhood.' Campbell said, 'It's not race.' I said, 'Damn right it's race!'"
The officers convened for a third time, Smith remembers, and then he was approached by the sergeant. "He extended his hand and said, 'No hard feelings.' I said, 'Glad you're feeling that way, goodnight.'"
He was released without being cited for any infraction.
Smith says he understands that law enforcement officers are under an increased state of alert since the tourist slaying. "But you just can't stop anybody anytime," he argues. "If I had been speeding, or if I was weaving, then that would be different. The fact is that when there's a crime crisis, the police believe they can justify suspending the rights of black males based upon the fact that if they stop enough black males, they'll find something wrong.
"Criminals see blacks as easy victims; police see blacks as hardened criminals," the attorney concludes. "But we are on neither team. We're up in the bleachers, watching."
Officer Clayton's recollection of the traffic stop is markedly different from H.T. Smith's. He says he was driving north on Biscayne Boulevard when he first noticed Smith's Cadillac on Eighteenth Street east of the boulevard, headlights off, parked several feet from the curb. A man whom Clayton describes as a "known homosexual prostitute" was speaking with the driver through the passenger-side window. The officer pulled off Biscayne onto Nineteenth Street out of view of the car and waited a minute. "I wanted to give it time to see what would transpire," Clayton explains. When he drove around the corner toward Smith's car, Clayton says, the prostitute noticed his police car and walked away, and Smith drove west along NE Eighteenth Street. The officer pulled him over two blocks down.
"There was a lot of cause to make the traffic stop," asserts Clayton, who has patrolled downtown Miami during his entire twelve-year career. Parked away from the curb, Smith's car was in violation of the traffic statutes involving obstruction of traffic, the officer says. "The law says that if you park a motor vehicle so as to impede or inhibit the normal flow of vehicular traffic, then you can be issued a summons." Smith and the pedestrian, he adds, appeared to be engaging in "normal prostitution-type activity warranting further investigation."
The officer also says that later, in the presence of Sergeant Campbell, he questioned Smith about the incident. "Mr. Smith said that as he was leaving the Omni, he noticed his door ajar [and] stopped to close it and to put his jacket in the back seat. He said that while he was standing there, the gentleman approached him and said, 'My! You look good tonight,' but he sloughed him off. I bought his excuse, as flimsy as it was. It just didn't make sense: He stops in an area notorious for prostitution, he stops in the middle of the street and cuts his lights out. It doesn't take three minutes to take off your jacket and close the door." Campbell was not reachable for comment.
"I gave him a courtesy," Clayton says. "I didn't issue him a ticket for obstruction, which I could have." As for the sobriety test, he adds, "There was basis there to warrant a test: His clothes were wrinkled, I detected an odor of alcoholic beverage." The officer admits Smith wasn't showing any other physical signs of intoxication.
Clayton rejects Smith's assertion that he made the stop because he saw a black man driving a nice car through a crime-ridden part of town. He claims he didn't even know Smith was black until he pulled him over. "Most of the time, at night, you can't tell the race or the gender," the officer insists. "[Smith's allegation] is far from reality. I find that offensive."
When he was provided with the details of Clayton's version of events, Smith clarified and elaborated on his story for New Times. He remembers that he had driven from the Omni up NE Fourth Avenue A not along Biscayne Boulevard as he had earlier said A before turning left on Eighteenth Street. He stopped at a stop sign, with the car running, for as long as it took to put his jacket and his Spirit of Excellence Award in the back seat. His headlights remained on. He did tell Officer Clayton that the pedestrian had spoken to him, but they had no conversation, much less one that lasted more than two minutes. He didn't previously mention the brief encounter because he was unaware the man was a prostitute; Clayton, Smith insists, never told him anything of the sort.
"I expected him to lie to you. He's trying to make me look bad," snaps Smith, pointing out that he has made no secret of the traffic stop, and has been describing his outrage to friends and acquaintances alike. "If I had been doing anything wrong, I wouldn't have mentioned it, would I? There's no rumor, no police report, no nothing. But people are going to believe it when they hear it," he predicts. "I'm a single man.... They're going to believe it." Smith is twice divorced and has two children.
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"I'm sure Officer Clayton knows what's suspicious or not," asserts Off. David Magnusson, a City of Miami police spokesman. "I don't subscribe to the opinion that people get pulled over because they're black or white or whatever. There's always more to it except just that."
Criminal defense attorney Benjamin Waxman disagrees. "Every day there are more and more incidences where citizens are stopped, embarrassed, and humiliated based on hunch and conjecture," argues Waxman, who is co-chair of the ACLU's Greater Miami Chapter Legal Panel. "The simple act of being in a particular neighborhood and engaging in a conversation with a pedestrian is not enough to create sufficient suspicion to seize that person's body and subject them to the humiliation that goes along with that type of encounter.
"These kinds of cases are thrown out of courts regularly," adds Waxman indignantly. "But it continues to go on. And it is done in the name of hysteria over crime in South Florida. My feeling is that the community has virtually granted license to do this by not reacting, by not being outraged."
Smith isn't sure whether he'll file a formal complaint with the police department's Internal Affairs Section. "I'm too angry to decide right now," he says. "I'm trying to calm down." Nor has he made up his mind whether to accept the invitation to join the nascent anti-crime coalition.