Miami Police: Jury Finds a "Policy" of Abuse
Miami cops caught up with Gerald Lelieve at the tidy intersection of NW First Avenue and 62nd Street, a few blocks from a house where he had apparently bought some cocaine. The strapping, 41-year-old Haitian man quickly ended up on his back, hands cuffed behind him. Then the officers wanted to double-check. Had they collared the right guy?
So they summoned Officer Odney Belfort, an athletic 12-year veteran with a troubling history regarding use of force. He had watched the buy.
That was October 11, 2006. Later, on the witness stand, Lelieve recalled seeing Belfort running toward him. "He say I think I am slick and he started kicking me. When he kicked me, I feel something pop in my stomach."
Lelieve stands six-foot-one and weighs more than 200 pounds, but he couldn't defend himself. "I tried to move my side, but he keep on kicking me... about seven times." He suffered severe internal injuries that nearly killed him. A trauma surgeon at Jackson Memorial Hospital would later testify to finding enough blood floating in Lelieve's torn abdomen to fill a two-liter bottle.
On July 13, 2007, Lelieve was convicted of drug trafficking. He is serving six-and-a-half years in Florida's Marion Correctional Institution. Police said he was holding 59.6 grams when they arrested him. That's above the 28-gram threshold where possession becomes trafficking under Florida law.
Lelieve later sued the city and Belfort for violating his constitutional rights. Last month, a Miami federal jury of five men and three women listened to the case for three days. The proceedings were largely unnoticed despite the significance to both city taxpayers and leaders.
In opening arguments, Assistant Miami City Attorney Christopher Green declared, "This is a case about credibility, pure and simple."
The jury watched as Belfort, who won the gold medal in low hurdles in the Florida Police and Fire Games in 2009, took the witness stand and denied attacking Lelieve. He insisted he wasn't even present during the arrest. "I was not there," Belfort said.
Two other officers backed him up under oath. One was Maj. Keith Cunningham, who now heads MPD's North District. But in the end, the jury found Lelieve's testimony more convincing. Evidence focused on the city's failure to adequately supervise and discipline Belfort.
The jury also determined the Miami Police Department had set the stage for what happened. Cops had shown a "policy, practice, or custom" of depriving suspects of their constitutional rights.
"Everything corroborated what my client had to say. Their story didn't make sense," Lelieve's lawyer, Greg Lauer, said. "The police were busting drug dealers, but it got to the point where they felt they could do whatever they wanted to in the pursuit of drugs, including injuring people. It was like the Wild West. There's no oversight."
According to his attorney, Lelieve was an itinerant cab and passenger-van driver. He couldn't be reached for an interview, but public records show he had been in Miami since at least 1994 and listed numerous addresses in North Miami, South Broward, and most recently the Orlando area. In 2000, he married a woman six years his senior, Rosa Maria Martin. Her name is tattooed on his chest.
He has a lengthy arrest record that includes mostly drug crimes but also one serious assault. Details of those crimes aren't available.
After Lelieve went to prison in September 2007, he tried to sue the police, but four times the courts dismissed his complaints. Then Miami's federal Volunteer Lawyers Project, which offers free representation to the indigent — reviewed his case and saw merit. That's how Lauer and his colleague Dion Cassata came to represent him. "He's got gumption, that's for sure," Lauer says. "But he also has a lot of time on his hands."
At trial, Assistant City Attorney Green asked Lelieve how he knew it was Belfort who kicked and stomped him. "I recognized Officer Belfort when he kicked me," Lelieve said. "I will always remember his face."
Belfort, hired in 1994, has a long history of complaints related to use of force, abusive treatment, and using improper procedures. His internal affairs profile lists 29 separate incidents from 1996 to 2007. Most of them were not sustained. Lelieve's lawsuit contended the city often failed to investigate such matters, routinely filing cases away as "information only" or "inconclusive."
The jury heard details about three internal affairs cases in which serious charges against Belfort were sustained, but no discipline was imposed despite solid evidence of criminal behavior. Prosecutors were not told about the cases, Lauer said.
In one 1999 case that was aggressively investigated, Belfort's behavior was similar to what Lelieve described in his run-in with him. He was accused of pepper-spraying two men who didn't get out of his way fast enough as he drove by in his patrol car on NW 64th Street at First Place. Belfort denied it, saying he wasn't in the area at the time.
But investigators later determined his pepper-spray canister had been used and that he hadn't reported it. They also found a witness who said he saw the officer spray the men after punching one of them twice. "You all can't get out of the way?" Belfort said, according to the witness. "You all think I'm playing?"
Belfort was found to have violated Civil Service Rules, which is grounds for dismissal. But it was recommended he forfeit 30 days of sick time. In the end, no punishment was imposed, nor were prosecutors notified about the attack or Belfort's attempt to cover it up.
In an interview, Lauer described MPD internal affairs as essentially a charade."It is supposed to give the appearance that they are doing something and that they want to keep violent cops off the street, but if you really look at them, what they are doing is protecting each other," Lauer said.
At the trial of his civil rights case in March, Lelieve testified that members of the city's Crime Suppression Unit, the elite drug-busting squad that had shown up when he was arrested, did nothing to stop Belfort. But when the beating was finished, Lelieve said, one detective asked, "Why did he do that?"
As he was helped to his feet and put into a police van, Lelieve complained of pain. But instead of going to a hospital, he was briefly taken back to the drug house for an unknown reason and then to the police station, where he complained again.
Lelieve testified police put him in an SUV and drove him to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ward D, where a doctor whom he could not identify took a quick look at him and said he was fine. "He just touched my stomach and he say I am all right," Lelieve said. "He don't even do an x-ray or nothing."
In a holding cell overnight at the Miami-Dade County Jail, Lelieve lay on the concrete floor and threw up. The following afternoon, a nurse sent him back to Jackson by ambulance. He told the medics the police had hurt him, and they noted it in their report.
A doctor named Mauricio Lynn diagnosed blunt abdominal trauma. He found two liters of blood in Lelieve's belly and later operated to repair a large tear in his abdominal cavity. Lelieve spent more than a week in the hospital.
The city's lawyers offered jurors no explanation of how he became seriously injured while in police custody. Nor did they call other officers who were present during the arrest to testify.
The city likewise presented no evidence that internal affairs had investigated Lelieve's injuries. Nor did the police department alert prosecutors about evidence of possible crimes — first battery (the attack on Lelieve) and later perjury (the discredited testimony of Major Cunningham and Belfort's partner, Officer Desreen Gayle, who backed up Belfort's claim that he wasn't at the arrest scene).
"Everything is kept in-house, swept under the rug," Lauer told the jury.
On March 16, the jury awarded Lelieve $175,000. Four days later, Miami U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga ordered the city to pay $100,000 for Lelieve's pain and suffering. The balance — including $50,000 in punitive damages — was assessed against Belfort for his use of excessive force "with malice." Large damage awards against individual police officers are unusual.
In reaching that decision, the jury determined Belfort had acted with "malice or reckless indifference" when he employed excessive force on Lelieve. But it was their finding of Miami's "policy, practice, or custom" of allowing officers to get away with abusing suspects that formed the basis of the damage award against the city.
It is not the first time such a determination has been made. In 2005, Miami U.S. District Court Judge Marcia Cooke rebuked the city for its officers' excessive use of force in a civil rights case a year before Lelieve was brutalized. Her order focused on an apparent pattern in which internal affairs justified police shootings "despite evidence to the contrary."
Wrote Cooke: "The court is perplexed as to how this shoddy police work and repugnant behavior can continue unquestioned. The facts show that this behavior continues because it is condoned by MPD supervisors, internal affairs, and comrades in arms."
Juries typically don't explain themselves when they make findings after listening to the evidence. But the jury that heard Lelieve's complaint appears to have shared Judge Cooke's thoughts.
Lauer said his client is "just happy to get his day in court and tell the jury what this officer did to him."
State records show Lelieve is due to finish his sentence December 3. But he won't be a free man. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants Lelieve detained while it moves to deport him to Haiti.
Miami police spokesman Maj. Delrish Moss declined to comment. The city and Belfort have asked Judge Altonaga for a new trial. And there appears to be little likelihood that a change in culture is around the corner at the Miami PD. So far, city hall hasn't pushed. And the new police chief, Manuel Orosa, has a history that includes involvement in a notorious brutality case 23 years ago.
Orosa, a 31-year veteran on the force, was a sergeant in 1988 when a squad of Miami cops beat a drug dealer named Leonardo Mercado to death.
Orosa wasn't on the scene of the beating, but he was the supervisor of six of the cops later charged in Mercado's death. He was suspended with pay in 1989 for failing to preserve evidence in the case, and later testified for the defense in the cops' trial.
Dan Christensen is the editor of browardbulldog.org, which also published this story.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.