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How They Nabbed the Nickel Bag Felon

They say the big house ages a man. Something about the empty hours, the bare cells, the crush of conscience, gnaws at the very fabric of youth. In Stanley K. Shapiro's case, that fabric was pretty frayed going in. Lightly liver-spotted, bulging around the belly, the 63-year-old emerged from Turner...
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They say the big house ages a man. Something about the empty hours, the bare cells, the crush of conscience, gnaws at the very fabric of youth.

In Stanley K. Shapiro's case, that fabric was pretty frayed going in. Lightly liver-spotted, bulging around the belly, the 63-year-old emerged from Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center this past Sunday looking about a dime short of a dollar. Certainly, few would have recognized him as the polyester-resplendent gadfly who has been faithfully buzzing Miami Beach Commission meetings for two decades, the self-styled political consultant who has made his name as the Beach's designated kibitzer.

Instead, Stanley Shapiro has been reduced to a statistic in America's futile drug war. Prosecutors portray the first-time offender as a bona fide menace to society, a parasite who "preys on the misery and addictions" of schoolchildren and who should have served two months in jail and a year under house arrest for selling two $50 bags of marijuana to an undercover cop.

Back in September 1992, Miami Beach police officers were informed by a "confidential source" that an elderly gentleman named Stanley was selling pot. On September 15 undercover officer Rosa Redruello visited Shapiro's apartment and purchased an envelope of marijuana for $50. Four days later she returned to make another purchase. As she exited, two backup officers burst in, guns drawn.

An alarmed Shapiro managed to remain a gentleman. Not realizing that Redruello was working undercover, he cried out, "Let her go! Let her go! She's not involved!" According to depositions taken later from the officers, Shapiro then informed them that he didn't "usually do this" and directed them to three additional envelopes hidden under the cushion of his couch. After a brief tussle, he was handcuffed.

Shapiro spent the night in jail before a friend bailed him out. He was charged with two third-degree felonies for selling marijuana, and four misdemeanors A three counts of possession and one count of resisting arrest without violence.

Had the matter ended there, Shapiro likely would have gotten off with a slap on the wrist. His evening in jail -- along with community service and/or probation -- would probably have been deemed sufficient punishment for a first-time offender. But Redruello realized that Shapiro's apartment was a few blocks from South Beach Alternative School (920 Alton Rd.), a middle school for troubled youth. Thanks to a 1990 state law, criminal penalties are dramatically stiffer for peddling or possessing narcotics within 1000 feet of a school, and according to police measurements, Shapiro's building, at 910 West Ave., was 715 feet from the school. Redruello upped the charges to second- and third-degree felonies.

Just like that, Stanley Shapiro faced a maximum of more than ten years in prison.

Adding insult to injury, the Miami Herald published an article about the arrest, in which assistant public defender Steve Leifman, one of Shapiro's many political foes, categorized him as "an unguided missile." This led the Public Defender's Office to cite a conflict of interest and decline the case.

Shapiro, who pleaded not guilty at his October arraignment, was eventually assigned a new attorney. The lawyer, Joseph Shook, hired a certified accountant to measure the distance from the school to Shapiro's apartment, then filed a motion to have the case dismissed on the grounds that the actual distance was 1086 feet. He also filed a motion to suppress the evidence gathered by police, arguing that they had no right to barge into Shapiro's dwelling without arrest or search warrants. Judge Richard Margolius denied both motions. Hoping to avoid a trial, however, the judge invited both sides to submit plea offers.

In mid-April Shook, Shapiro, and prosecutor Stephen Millan met in the judge's chambers. (Shapiro had requested the meeting be held in chambers, to avoid publicity.) The state made its pitch for 60 days in jail and house arrest. Shook asserted that Shapiro should be sentenced to substantial community service and probation. The judge ordered Shapiro jailed for fifteen days, placed on probation for two years, and assigned 300 hours of community service. "If you make the sale, you go to jail," he intoned.

A transplanted New Yorker who has twice run unsuccessfully for a seat on the Miami Beach Commission, Shapiro says he has no problem with the judge's decision. "It's the state that's out of control on this," he maintains. "I mean, I'm sitting in court, and the kid who came up before me had committed battery on a police officer. Put the officer out of commission for 40 days. He got 25 hours community service. Why do the prosecutors want to send me to prison for two months?"

Shook says the state's fervor was based on the ill-conceived notion that Shapiro's proximity to the school somehow endangered kids. "It's just another example of using this 1000-foot rule to jack up a sentence," he charges. "The school was totally irrelevant. Stanley didn't even know it existed. Neither did the cops, until three days after the arrest."

Prosecutor Millan concedes that sending a man eligible for senior-citizen discounts up the river for selling pot from his apartment might seem a bit excessive A but for one ominous factor: "We had information that he was selling to children." Specifically, that Shapiro was selling to the kids at South Beach Alternative. Millan says this tidbit was passed on to him by the cops who initiated the investigation, and that they, in turn, had been tipped off by two young men who came into the police station.

"So there's a direct link between Shapiro's conduct and what the law's aiming at," concludes David I. Gilbert, a supervisor in the state attorney's major crimes division.

"I never sold to any minors," Shapiro insists. "They wouldn't even let those kids into my building. I live on the fifth floor and we've got TV cameras to monitor who comes and goes." Both sales to Redruello, he adds, took place at night, long after school hours. What's more, students at South Beach Alternative are not allowed off campus during school hours, a policy enforced by a fence and security guards.

And curiously, although Stephen Millan admits his plea offer relied in part on assertions that Shapiro sold to students, the allegation was never raised in court. Even more curiously, none of the three officers Shook questioned said anything about Shapiro's alleged dealing to children. In fact, all three sounded genuinely vague about details when it came to the "street source" who led them to Shapiro.

"All I know is that I came into work one day. And they were there," Redruello recalls in her November 18 deposition. "[They said] 'Hey, we've got information.'" Specifically, the source told her "that Shapiro was selling marijuana from his apartment and would sell to anybody that they would bring." (Redruello did not return several messages requesting comment for this story. A second undercover officer, who requested anonymity, would say only that "we found out about the case by a confidential informant.")

Shapiro says he should have had the opportunity to dispute these "hidden claims" during an April 14 hearing on his motion to dismiss the charges or during the sentencing conference in Judge Margolius's chambers. Millan counters that the subject was never broached in open court because Shook objected before police could begin discussing how they initiated their probe. "The defendant was never penalized for this allegation," Millan stresses.

All sides agree that Margolius was benevolent in sentencing the defendant to only fifteen days. And despite some initial fear and trembling, Shapiro, a former hotel manager who moved from Manhattan to Miami Beach in 1977 after being mugged three times, withstood his punishment valiantly.

Ever the schmoozer, he even managed to squeeze in a bit of networking. "Everybody was cool," he reported midway through his stint. "I made friends with a guy who stole $15,000 from a judge. There's one guy here who's dad owned the restaurant at the Cadillac Hotel on 40th and Collins." Later Shapiro called with an update: "I just met a guy who's here for attempted first-degree murder! His name's Benny. He was on TV earlier this week."

Stooped by the rigors of incarceration, the ex-con does concede that the hours of contemplation afforded by life behind bars left him with a broader perspective on the human condition and a renewed commitment to the political process. "I paid my dues to society. It's time to start my life anew," he confided. "So, where you gonna party tonight? " Thus began his slow march toward an uncertain fate.

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