It was a humid, cloudy Monday morning in May 2018 when Miami police Officer Rigoberto Hernandez spotted Jose Medina holding an open can of beer while sitting in front of La Libertad Market in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood. Medina, a slight, 61-year-old homeless man, was often found near the market on the corner of Northwest Seventh Avenue and West Flagler Street. But that morning, he was placed under arrest.
From April 2015 to June 2018, Miami police arrested Medina 70 times. Dozens of the arrests were made after cops spotted him holding an open can of beer near La Libertad, a violation of a county ordinance. Many of the affidavits for Medina’s 62 alcohol-related arrests are almost identical. Like so many others, the May 28, 2018, affidavit signed by Officer Hernandez read: “Defendant was observed drinking out of a 16-ounce can of Natural Ice beer in plain view of motorists and pedestrians. Defendant arrested.” On other occasions, cops arrested Medina for trespassing, a misdemeanor that police are permitted to handle with a ticket.
On Jan. 2, 2018, another Miami police officer said he observed Medina urinating near a building on Northwest Seventh and West Flagler, so he arrested him and charged him with indecent exposure. As a result of the arrest, ICE sent the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation a detainer request for Medina, who is from Cuba. Eventually ICE lifted the hold. The state attorney’s office declined to press charges, just like it did 61 other times after Miami police arrested, booked, and transported Medina to jail. When prosecutors did pursue Medina, he was usually convicted, given credit for time served, and ordered to pay a fine to the courts. Despite applying for indigent status each time he was arrested, Medina was often charged a $50 public defender fee. By June 2018, Medina had accrued over $2,600 in fines.
In June, the arrests stopped. Employees at La Libertad said they hadn’t seen Medina and were unaware of his whereabouts. Medina occasionally provided the address of a woman named Elmira Delgado on his arrest forms. When The Appeal visited her at her home she said Medina was like family to her. He was also deeply troubled and unable to overcome his addiction to alcohol, Delgado said. The arrests finally stopped, she explained, because he was dead. On the morning of June 8, 2018, Medina was struck and killed by a car, just four days after his last arrest. Miami police responded to the scene and wrote up an accident report, but according to a police spokesperson, no arrest was made.
Miami’s history of targeting the homeless
Every year, thousands of homeless people like Medina are arrested in Miami for offenses such as trespassing, drinking in public, panhandling, possession of a stolen shopping cart, and unlawful use of a dairy crate. Miami-Dade County’s homeless population is about 3,500, but area police have arrested homeless people over 10,200 times since June 2015, according to arrest data from Miami-Dade County’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Cops made an additional 12,200 arrests for people whose addresses were listed as “unknown.” It’s possible that many of those people are also homeless, like Medina, whose address is listed as “unknown” in the booking data, but “homeless” in all of his arrest affidavits.
The arrest data doesn’t indicate which police department made the arrests, but the three biggest police departments in Miami-Dade County—Miami-Dade, Miami, and Miami Beach—most likely account for many of them. The Miami and Miami Beach police departments didn’t respond to emails and phone calls seeking an explanation for the high number of arrests of homeless people. A spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Police Department would say only that the department “conducts arrests in accordance to state and federal laws/legal procedures.”
Miami-area police have a long history of targeting homeless people: In the 1980s, they routinely arrested transients for misdemeanors like being in the park after dark. In the early 1990s, the ACLU of Florida brought a class action lawsuit against the city of Miami on behalf of 5,000 homeless people, resulting in what was known as the Pottinger Agreement, which required police to offer help to homeless people. Officers were also forbidden from arresting people simply for living on the street. But on Feb. 15, a federal judge in Florida terminated the agreement.
The police in Miami-Dade County arrest thousands of homeless people for minor misdemeanors or county ordinance violations each year, yet they are the worst in the state at solving more serious crime. Mid-year crime data from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows that the county’s clearance rate—the percentage of reported crimes that lead to an arrest—was just 16.2 percent in the first six months of 2018.
In 2017, over 2,000 homeless people were arrested for drinking in public, panhandling, possession of a stolen shopping cart, trespassing, and minor drug charges. That same year, roughly 1,400 people were arrested in Miami-Dade County for rape, murder, and robbery, despite the fact that 5,825 rapes, murders, and robberies were reported in 2017.
A cycle of arrests continues
“Arresting someone multiple times for these kinds of minor offenses really does nothing to address the issues of homelessness,” said Stephen Schnably, a professor at University of Miami’s School of Law and one of the attorneys who worked with on the Pottinger lawsuit. “It’s more expensive, actually. Repeatedly arresting homeless people costs more than actually providing people with a shelter.”
“It’s very costly to municipalities,” Schnably said. “These arrests take time and resources from police departments, corrections, and the judiciary.” According to the Florida Department of Corrections, it costs $158.87 a day or $57,988 a year to incarcerate a person in Florida.
And that calculus doesn’t include the human cost, Schnably adds, as people are saddled with debt and lengthy arrest records, thus making it more difficult to escape from homelessness.
In January, police in Miami arrested Deangelo Lewis, a homeless man, four times: twice for trespassing, once for possession of less than 20 grams of cannabis (both ticketable offenses), and once for disorderly conduct. Similarly, Lloyd Daniels, 24, was arrested twice in January for trespassing and once for cocaine possession; 31-year-old Schyler King was arrested twice for trespassing and once for possession of less than 20 grams of pot. His most recent trespassing arrest on Feb. 14 was his 13th arrest for the same offense since June 2015.
The cycle seems to continue. Around 10 a.m. on Jan. 3, a Miami Beach police officer saw Lazaro Cordovi, a 58-year-old homeless man, sitting at the corner of 75th Street and Collins Avenue in North Beach. Like Medina, Cordovi is a Cuban immigrant, and when Rodriguez spotted him, he held an open can of beer in his hands. Three Miami Beach police officers then arrested the 5’6”, 145-pound Cordovi and transported him to jail, where he spent the night. He was convicted, given time served, and ordered to pay $373 in fines.