On May 20, 2013, Edduard Prince began walking from his home on 17th Street in Overtown to his job at a legal processing company at 15th and Biscayne, just as he does every day. He crossed the railroad tracks that bisect his street between NW First and North Miami avenues, just like everybody else does.
And then a few minutes later, he was arrested for trespassing, just like hundreds of others have been — all for walking through their own neighborhood.
"[The officers] were two blocks away from the tracks, on the side, behind other cars," says Prince, whose story was first reported by Al Crespo's Crespogram blog last week. "Once you walk down the street, they kind of like pop out from behind these cars."
In the past couple of years, the Florida East Coast Railway Police, which has jurisdiction over the tracks, has issued at least 700 trespassing arrests in the exact same spot, claims Prince, who has a pending civil lawsuit against the company and who provided Riptide with dozens of other arrest affidavits. The offenders are predominantly black and poor, like most residents in the area, and they're typically walking between Overtown and jobs or businesses east of the tracks or to the Publix on Biscayne Boulevard.
They cross at the trash-strewn rock path at NW 17th Street because it's the only option for seven blocks. Once arrested, they're typically handcuffed and sometimes taken to jail — only for the charges to be promptly dismissed in court.
"They're targeting poor communities," Jon De Leon, a civil rights lawyer, says. "It has been a program used to detain and arrest minorities."
But Bob Ledoux, a spokesman for the railway, says that his company's main concern is safety and that every year pedestrians are killed trying to walk across tracks. "Depending on the circumstances, the officers have the authority to make arrests if they deem to be warranted," he says.
Prince was arrested around 10 in the morning. He was wearing a hoodie with his hands in his pockets, he says, when the officers converged on him from behind the cars. One pointed a gun. Prince had already heard from friends about the arrests and quickly steeled himself.
"You going to arrest me for walking over the railroad tracks?" he quipped. He told the officers that he worked for an attorney's office and that his was a nonarrestable offense. "OK, smart-ass," he claims one said. "You're going to jail."
Prince was released that day but had to visit the hospital for minor injuries. He filed a claim and then was arrested again a few weeks later, he said, this time without even crossing the tracks.
Faced with complaints from residents like Prince, Miami's public works department filed a request with Florida East Coast Railway last month to create a pedestrian crossing at 17th Street. Ledoux says the railway plans to work on educating residents about the risks.
In the meantime, they're forced to weigh the risk of arrest versus the need to get to work or the grocery store. "It's like a trap for people," De Leon says. "It doesn't make any sense."