Dozens were arrested and jailed during Miami protests. Here’s why convictions aren’t likely

Aquiles Jose Oraa, a bartender who lives in a high-rise near downtown Miami, went downstairs Sunday night to let in two friends who were dropping by to visit. A few minutes later, all three were handcuffed and hauled off to jail on a misdemeanor curfew violation.

Oraa says he wasn’t a protester and didn’t realize the curfew was already in effect.

“I was literally in flip-flops,” Oraa said on Tuesday. “I was 20 steps from the entrance of my building.”

Oraa was one of 108 people arrested by Miami and Miami-Dade cops during last weekend’s protests against police brutality and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But legal experts believe that most of the cases, which were largely for curfew violations, will ultimately get tossed, either by prosecutors or judges mindful that many of those arrested were not actually the so-called agitators hurling bottles and rocks at police.

“I would be very surprised if in this particular climate, if these curfew violations were actually prosecuted,” said Miami criminal defense lawyer Michelle Estlund, who said she was largely impressed at how local police minimized tensions and avoided the large-scale clashes seen in other U.S. cities. “It would be my hope that making the arrests were for public safety, and now that the issue has been dissolved, nothing further would come of it.”

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office will make the final call on whether to pursue the cases but most of those decisions are likely weeks away. Prosecutors have 21 days to decide whether to file misdemeanor charges, and whether they will seek jail time if they do so.

A state attorney’s spokesman said the office is requesting anyone arrested solely for violating curfew be released “on their own recognizance” from jail, without having to post a bond. “We are evaluating each case on an individual basis to determine whether prosecution is appropriate,” spokesman Ed Griffith said.

Prosecutors have already dropped one high-profile curfew arrest. Miami-Dade police arrested WSVN-7 social-media producer Joel Franco, who had been covering the arrest for the station, and was jailed even though he had a press pass. Media members are specifically exempted from the curfew.

By and large, South Florida — which had experienced devastating riots over tensions with police in decades past — avoided the large-scale clashes, looting and destruction seen in Minneapolis, New York City and Atlanta.

On Saturday, Miami police arrested 13 people, and just three on Sunday. Miami-Dade police, which was assisting city police, reported 57 protesters were arrested Saturday, and 35 on Sunday. Most of the cases were for violating the emergency curfew ordinance, and some were for failing to disburse. Three young men were charged with burglary after cops said they looted Bayside Marketplace.

Curfew enforcement isn’t over. Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez told county commissioners on Tuesday wants the 9 p.m. curfew to remain in place through the weekend.

“Around the country, things are very heated,” Ramirez told county commissioners. “That’s why I feel we should continue with the curfew through the weekend so we can have consistency. In case that any of these splinter groups try to start something in our community.”

Police and elected leaders have blamed the violence on a smaller group of agitators, suggesting many came from outside of South Florida to stir up trouble. If so, that wasn’t reflected in arrest records. Most of the first wave of arrests were people with home addresses in South Florida — and some were listed a homeless.

Cops could not say if many agitators were actually arrested. Arrest records show only one man, a 29-year-old from North Lauderdale, arrested for activity that might be considered violent. He was arrested Sunday, accused of kicking a police officer after refusing to disperse.

Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina said some of those people who were defacing police cars, vandalizing walls and highway or throwing objects could be arrested in the coming weeks. The reason: undercover officers were in the crowd taking photos of them. Detectives have identified some, and forwarded the cases to prosecutors to decide on possible charges.

“Ultimately they will be charged after the fact,” Colina said. “Just because you got away with it tonight doesn’t mean we won’t come for you.”

Activists make their way through Overtown during a Justice for George Floyd protest on Monday, June 1, 2020.
Activists make their way through Overtown during a Justice for George Floyd protest on Monday, June 1, 2020.

For those charged last weekend for violating curfew, the odds are good that they won’t get convictions on their records.

During the protests at the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas, an army of heavily armed police officers arrested hundreds of people during much more chaotic and destructive series of protests. Officers were heavily criticized for overly aggressive tactics, and while hundreds were arrested, only four convictions were secured, three of them for misdemeanors.

In the latest protests, the Miami-Dade chapter of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has been organizing pro-bono representation, which could be key because poor defendants aren’t always guaranteed an attorney, especially if the state announces it won’t seek jail time.

“We do know that if the state does file charges, unrepresented people are much more likely to take plea deals when they could win at trial if they had a lawyer,” said Carmen Vizcaino, a FACDL member and a past president. “It’s very difficult for a pro-se litigant to go up against a trained prosecutor.”

In a twist, Melba Pearson, the candidate who is hoping to unseat longtime incumbent Katherine Fernandez Rundle in the August election, has also offered to arrange pro-bono representation for anyone arrested on non-violent charges. “To law enforcement — I strongly encourage use of civil citations instead of arrests since we are in COVID19 crisis,” tweeted Pearson, who is hoping to become the county’s top law-enforcement officer while running on a justice-reform platform.

South Florida police officers had already been dealing with an earlier emergency curfew implemented by Miami-Dade to stem the curb of the novel coronavirus. A handful of people around the county were arrested for refusing to stay home — charges that were mostly dropped.

In the protest cases, the violations may be harder to prove because not everyone may have known about the curfew. On Saturday, the first announcement of a 10 p.m. curfew on Saturday was given as the unrest began to escalate around 8 p.m.

Bryan Rivera, 28, was bicycling to the downtown protest from his Allapattah home when he said he heard a government alert on his phone.

But Rivera insisted he didn’t look at the alert text closely, and he never heard officers outside of Bayside Markeplace announce a curfew. He too was arrested for curfew violation.

“I didn’t hear it. If I had, I would just have come back the next day. Me being arrested defeats the purpose of protesting out there,” said Rivera, who said his only act of disobedience was throwing an orange traffic cone.

Oraa, the bartender arrested while greeting his friends outside his building, was arrested the following night. He said he thought he was OK to emerge from his building — he didn’t realize the curfew had been moved to 9 p.m.

He also said that during the pandemic, he regularly walked his dog past curfew away from his building and never got into trouble. On Sunday, other curfew violators arrested alongside him were people walking to their cars, or just using the phones outside, he said.

A Miami-Dade police spokesman stressed that regardless, only essential workers can be on the street during an emergency curfew.

“The only exception is walking a dog. If he wasn’t doing that, then shame on him,” said Detective Christopher Sowerby-Thomas. “Unfortunately, sometimes we can’t separate the agitators from [peaceful] people.”

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