South Miami Taxpayers Shell Out $90K After Cops Ruin Quince Party

Julio Sanchez began planning his daughter's quinceañera almost three years in advance. One of the things the Cuban-American loved about his daughter Janessa was her thoughtfulness, and she decided a small, inexpensive get-together would do just fine when the time came. Nothing like the elaborate, $20,000 blowouts some of her friends at St. Brendan High School had. So on December 12, 2009, Sanchez decorated his South Miami home and set up a buffet table of kid-friendly food like pizza and chicken fingers. He bought his quiet, studious daughter a pink-and-silver dress.

A family friend DJ'ed, and 20 to 30 teens gathered outside, with boys standing awkwardly on one side of the patio and girls on the other. It was like a middle-school dance in that no one was dancing. Certainly nothing wild, Sanchez says. So when cops showed up at 9:30 p.m., two hours after the party began, everyone was surprised. An anonymous neighbor had called in a noise complaint. Under a city ordinance enacted in 1981, no person is allowed to create a "loud and boisterous noise which may annoy persons on a street or sidewalk." Someone, it seemed, was annoyed by the Top 40 hits of the mid-2000s.

Sanchez unplugged one of the speakers so the music would be softer and considered the problem resolved. An hour later, though, a different officer showed up and said everyone had to leave immediately. The quince was a drop-off party, Sanchez told Officer Vigil, who didn't seem to understand that the minor children couldn't drive and that parents needed to be called first.

Asked for his name and badge number, Vigil became enraged, Sanchez says.

"He did one of those karate moves and put both of my hands behind me, slamming me into my car in front of my house," Sanchez remembers.

Sanchez sat in the back of a cop car for close to an hour as the teenagers were picked up by their parents. Afterward, he was given a notice to appear in court. The criminal charges were second on his mind to the ruined party.

"It's one of those special moments that comes only once in a lifetime," Sanchez says. "We didn't even get to take pictures or cut cakes." The father-daughter song that had been selected so far in advance -- "Wind Beneath My Wings" -- went unplayed.

Ray Taseff, Sanchez's lawyer, says his client's civil rights were violated by the "loud and boisterous" ordinance. As written, he says, it violates the First Amendment right to expression.

"One type of speech and noise can be agreeable to one and disagreeable to others," says the attorney, who invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in court documents. "When you say you're gonna define unlawlessness as what's annoying, that gives the police a tremendous amount of power." In a deposition, Officer Vigil said, "My opinion [as to a noise violation] might not be the same opinion as the next officer who responds, who might actually take different legal action since he does not have the same perspective I do."

The case moved from state to federal court in 2012, and the city decided to settle this month. The damages awarded for the crashed quince: $90,000.

"Believe it or not, this had nothing to do with money when I brought up the case, says Sanchez, who also explained that a recent death in the family factored into his decision to settle. "It had to do with principle. How am I supposed to teach my kid to stand up for herself when she sees her father get arrested right in his home? That's my sanctuary, my domain."

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Allie Conti was a fellow at Miami New Times and a staff writer for New Times Broward-Palm Beach, where her writing won awards from the Florida Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists. She's now the senior staff writer at Vice and a contributor to the New York Times, New York Magazine, and the Atlantic.