Longform

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.

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Dan Christensen