South Miami Police Chief Accused of Making Illegal Background Checks

Embattled South Miami Police Chief Orlando Martinez De Castro is facing new accusations that he abused his power to conduct illegal criminal background checks on his perceived enemies. Last week, De Castro pleaded no contest to Miami-Dade ethics charges that he steered police department business to his wife's auto tag and car insurance companies, violating a city law that prohibits city employees from doing business with immediate family members. Now South Miami Mayor Phillip Stoddard, the chief's top political nemesis, allege he broke state and federal laws restricting the use of a national criminal database in order to dig up dirt on his detractors.

De Castro, who has to pay $2,000 in investigative costs related to the ethics complaint, denies any wrong doing. "This has been a witch hunt against me for the last 18 months," he says. "Running checks on people during an investigation is standard policy regardless if they are a victim, witness, or offender."

Except that Stoddard and prominent Miami attorney Joe Klock, whose record the chief also researched, claim the chief wasn't conducting criminal probes when he looked them up. "This is an invasion of privacy and a violation of a person's fourth amendment rights," Stoddard grouses. "When the chief of police is doing this, we have a serious problem."

Adds Klock: "I think the police chief believes he is above the law and he can do anything he wants. The people who continue to employ him can solve the problem by firing him."

Stoddard says he recently learned about the background checks after requesting two years worth of logs documenting the times South Miami Police have looked people up using the National Crime Information Center database, also known as NCIC. The logs show De Castro requested background checks on Klock on March 3, 2011 and on Stoddard five days later, which was first reported by The Strawbuyer blog.

The day Klock's name was run through NCIC, the lawyer had just met with Stoddard and the city attorney to complain about the police department allegedly harassing one of his law firm's paralegals, an African American man.

(Klock asked Riptide to refrain from naming the man because he may face retaliation from South Miami cops. Miami-Dade criminal court records show the paralegal has been arrested numerous times by South Miami cops, but all the cases were either dismissed or prosecutors didn't file charges).

De Castro claims he used NCIC to look up Klock and his employee as part of an ongoing investigation into the paralegal. On March 8, 2011, the chief ran Stoddard's name through a criminal background check. De Castro says he did so because the mayor had recently been a victim of a burglary in which Stoddard alleged the thief took $6,000 worth of computers.

Although two of Stoddard's colleagues, Commissioner Valerie Newman and Vice-Mayor Josh Liebman, say hizzoner has a personal vendetta against De Castro. "He's been consumed with getting rid of the chief," Newman says. "He is jeopardizing the city's ability to use this system."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.