Miami Blows $75,000 Defending Cops Who Stalked State Trooper

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Florida's law enforcement community is staffed by far too many adult children. Just ask State Trooper Donna Jane Watts. In October 2011, Watts stopped a City of Miami cop traveling 120 mph on the highway and arrested him; in retaliation, 88 police officers used the confidential police driver database to stalk her. Watts sued and later said in court that officers in multiple departments prank-ordered pizzas to be delivered to her house and smeared feces on her car as revenge for her trying to stop a rogue cop from accidentally killing someone on the road.

Somehow, despite the fact that the five City of Miami officers involved admitted they accessed Watts' private information, a federal appeals court ruled in February that the officers did nothing wrong. But that doesn't mean the ordeal wasn't a massive waste of time and resources. At this week's city commission meeting, Miami lawmakers are scheduled to pay $75,000 in attorneys' fees to the two law firms that defended the five officers.

Of that amount, $25,000 will be sent to Rober Buschel, the Fraternal Order of Police lawyer from Fort Lauderdale who's also defending Donald Trump's former adviser Roger Stone in the ongoing federal investigation into the Trump campaign's ties with Russia. The other $50,000 will go to the firm Rice Pugatch Robinson Storfer & Cohen.

Watts' case generated national headlines thanks to her dashcam footage of the arrest. In the now-infamous video, a Miami squad car rockets past her on the road, and she initiates a chase. When Officer Fausto Lopez notices he's being pulled over, he finally stops — and Watts arrests him at gunpoint. Lopez, who had a history of reckless driving, was later fired.

But such an arrest violates an informal law enforcement policy known as "professional courtesy" — that is, the unwritten agreement that officers won't arrest one another if they notice colleagues breaking the law. And the apparent punishment for breaking that code — and keeping citizens safe — was a coordinated harassment campaign.

The officers went right for Florida's Driver and Vehicle Information Database (DAVID), a technically confidential bank of information on every driver in the state, which vengeful officers are caught abusing all the time. In all, Watts sued 88 officers from various departments across Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties — and 83 of them settled with her because computers note every DAVID search and it was extremely clear her private information had been compromised. (One of the Miami officers sued is none other than noted loudmouth and former Miami Police union head Javier Ortiz.)

In a 69-page lawsuit Watts later filed, she claimed she was forced to "live like a hermit" as the harassment stretched on: In addition to the pizzas and human shit, she said she received prank calls and regularly noticed cars idling outside her house waiting for her. She said she began to dread opening her mailbox out of fear that someone had placed something dangerous inside. She also worried that her own co-workers would refuse to back her up in dangerous situations on duty. She considered moving away.

A judge in the U.S. Southern District of Florida initially agreed with Watts. But in one of the more insane federal court rulings in recent South Florida history, an appellate judge argued that, because state law didn't specifically bar cops from accessing DAVID for "their own personal use," the five Miami officers who refused to settle the case weren't legally liable for stalking her:
In this appeal, the Defendants do not contest that they (1) knowingly obtained Watts’s personal information (2) from a motor vehicle record. They argue, however, that Watts failed to show that they obtained her information for an impermissible purpose. They also argue that even if their purpose was impermissible under the DPPA, Watts has failed to show that such impermissibility was sufficiently established to warrant denying them qualified immunity.
So the bullies won — and cost taxpayers $75,000 in the process.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.