More than 2,000 arrest cases are being questioned by the county’s public defender’s office in the aftermath of the Biscayne Park police scandal.
The village has been under a cloud since the ex-police chief and three officers were arrested and charged with framing three Black men on felony burglary charges. Former chief Raimundo Atesiano was sentenced to three years in prison last week.
The scandal has brought both infamy and national attention to this small village with a population of a little over 3,000 residents.
One of the three victims of injustice spent nearly five years in prison and got deported, while the other two victims – one, a 16-year-old minor – were facing prison terms.
Miami-Dade County Public Defender Carlos Martinez maintains those three victims of injustice may only be the tip of the iceberg.
“For me the story is a lot bigger than what we’ve seen,” said Martinez. He said there exist hundreds of similar cases in which those arrested by the Biscayne Park police may have had their constitutional rights violated. He also asserts that these violations may have begun as far back as 2010.
“It was not only the police chief,” said Martinez of Atesiano. “He became the police chief in 2013. The problems have been happening, from what we are able to see, since 2010. 2010 is when it starts; 2011 it gets worse; 2012 it’s pretty much out of control.”
Based on charts that his department has made, there may be as many as 100 felony cases filed by the convicted Biscayne Park officers between 2010 and 2014 that could be false arrest cases. Three hundred cases were misdemeanors with jail terms and the rest are for infractions as simple as crossing the railroad tracks.
“There’s more than 2,000 cases that need to be reviewed,” said Martinez. “The majority of those arrests were misdemeanors.
My feeling is we need to review.”
Reviewing and processing these convictions for reversal is an extremely tedious process, said Martinez. His office will review cases from Biscayne Park and then petition the Florida State Attorney’s office. Based on the evidence presented and the state attorney office’s investigation, each client will have their conviction overturned or expunged, taken out of the public record.
Tedious it will be because Martinez has gotten to only seven cases in addition to the three Black men who were framed for crimes they did not commit.
“I believe we have three expunged and we have had four convictions vacated,” said Martinez.
Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and the public defender’s, along with Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel and the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, are working from the same spreadsheet. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle has committed resources of her “Justice Project,” which since 2003 has been examining cases that might have resulted in wrongful convictions.
Melba Pearson of the Florida ACLU agrees and supports Martinez’s efforts to review and resolve any and all cases in which the Biscayne Park police department may have wrongfully supported the conviction of otherwise innocent citizens.
“We need to make sure that there are no more victims of this chief’s [Atesiano] actions,” said Pearson, who is a former prosecutor. “This was a travesty of justice. He also perpetrated a fraud on his community who he was sworn to serve.”
Pearson pointed out that Atesiano framed men who had prior criminal records.
“This chief was a predator,” she said.
Social cost of injustice
Pearson is hoping that many of the convictions will be overturned, sealed and/or expunged.
“Having a criminal history can handicap you from living in society,” said Pearson.
Pearson said that the passage of Amendment 4 will be helpful in allowing ex-felons to vote. But even having a misdemeanor conviction can have a wide range of effects.
Misdemeanors, like felonies, remain on one’s public record forever unless they are expunged or sealed.
Martinez said there is a significant social cost for the actions of the wayward chief and his officers.
“The majority of them [the arrested] were either Black or Hispanic, because that just happens to be who drives in that area,” said Martinez.
Miami-Dade County, unlike the rest of the state, does not appoint a public defender for misdemeanor cases unless the state attorney’s office is seeking jail time, said Martinez.
A first-degree misdemeanor carries up to one year in jail while a second degree misdemeanor in punishable by up to 60 days in jail or a $500 fine.
Martinez says hundreds of people were arrested for crossing railroad tracks and charged with a misdemeanor. And hundreds of people were arrested for having commercial vehicles without adequate signage, “when in fact, those vehicles were not commercial,” said Martinez.
He said those were working-class people who were using their vans, cars and pickup trucks to go to work.
There were hundreds of people arrested for driving with a suspended license. And many more who got tickets for speeding or for not wearing a seat belt.
Felons no more
Martinez represented the three men who were set up for burglary charges. One of the men served several years in prison before being deported to Haiti. All of their convictions have been expunged from the records.
Clarens Desrouleaux was facing a maximum, state-mandated prison term based on prior arrests and other material evidence, said Martinez. Added to that, the Biscayne Park police was charging him with three different cases and multiple counts.
“If you add up the maximum statutory sentence per charge, it came up to 105 years. And the judge made it very clear,” said Martinez, “if he loses in court, he was facing 105 years. So Clarens took a plea to five.”
Attorney Sagi Shaked is now handling Desrouleaux’s civil case.
“My client Clarens spent four plus years in prison for something he did not do,” said Shaked. “They basically framed him.”
Both Martinez and Shaked agreed that even their clients’ “confessions” were falsified.
The Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office and the courts overturned Desrouleaux’s conviction record based on evidence against the village police, said Shaked.
“So he's no longer convicted for that but he can't get back into the country,” said Shaked. “He's in Haiti right now. We need to get him back here.”
Desrouleaux was deported directly to Haiti when released from prison. He has two children and a sister living in the Miami area, said Shaked.
As for his civil case, Shaked is suing the Village of Biscayne Park and the police officers individually.
Shaked said they don't have a specific figure for what they are seeking in money damages.
“I mean, really, what would it be worth if you take away someone's life, liberty for four plus years and have them sit in prison?” said Shaked. “It’s not like he's sitting in a vacation spot in Hawaii. He's sitting in a prison.”
Erasmus Banmah, 31, was another victim of the Biscayne Park police scheme. He was falsely charged with breaking into five cars. The police had no evidence or grounds on which to arrest Banmah but the officer – based on orders from Atesiano – falsified the arrest affidavit.
Banmah’s arrest was an attempt to close five unsolved vehicle burglaries in February 2014. Banmah’s felony conviction was overturned and he too is suing the village and several related individuals in a civil suit.
A 16-year-old boy also was framed with four felony burglary charges by the Biscayne Park chief and his men. The minor is referred to as T.D. in court documents in both the criminal and civil cases. His felony conviction was also overturned.
T.D.’s attorney in the civil case said the case is currently under litigation and they will not make any public statements.
Legal community outreach
“I have never seen anything like this where it was so pervasive in a police department for a number of years,” said Martinez. He said this is probably the worst thing that can happen within a police department because it further destroys community trust.
“We need to trust the police, but when you see this abuse of power, it shakes the foundation of what our justice system is all about.”
Martinez plans to meet in January with Black bar associations to garner support for digging more deeply into the Biscayne Park police scandal.
“I am setting a meeting up with all the bar associations to get their help – particularly with the people that did not have attorneys – to get their help pro bono and their memberships’ so that we can help as many people as possible who were wrongly arrested,” said Martinez.
Trelvis Randolph, immediate past president of the Wilkie Ferguson Bar Association, is standing in full support and looking forward to contribute to Martinez’s efforts.
“That’s 2,000 lives that have been impacted by this, you know, heinous act,” said Randolph. “And this would be something that we as a society, not just the public defender, should be morally outraged that this happened.”
If you believe you were a victim of Biscayne Park police malfeasance, call the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, 305-547-3300.