By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
At the past couple of debates in Dade County’s sheriff’s race, audience members have questioned how many lawsuits arose under the administration of Philip Street, who was sheriff for 20 years before being edged out by current Sheriff Patrick Cannon in the 2004 primary, as opposed to how many have been filed since Cannon took over.
The answer to the latter part of the question is: hold your breath but none so far. Dade County Executive and Commission Chairman Ted Rumley said he didn’t know whether a civil suit might still not emerge from an apparent suicide in the county jail in January, but otherwise the Sentinel found nothing filed against the Cannon administration in either Dade Superior or Federal District court beyond one routine-looking habeas corpus – a request from an attorney to release an inmate from jail on technical grounds.
For the Street administration, though, the answer is not as easy. Last week, the Sentinel reported on the Ed Reese case, in which a businessman settled for $285,000 after a 2003 incident in which a beating by Dade deputies sent him to the hospital. Reese, then 61, was savaged by the lawmen when he asked them to move their patrol cars, which were blocking the entrance to the apartment complex he owned.
In an interview at the time of the settlement, Reese explained he had released Street from the suit after his attorney told him a sheriff couldn’t be sued for the actions of his subordinates unless it was proved he knew they were likely to hurt someone and hadn’t stopped them. But Reese nevertheless blamed Street for his deputies’ behavior as the leader responsible for establishing that atmosphere of brutality.
That was a high-profile suit and well documented; the others are less so. Many were dismissed either soon or sooner or later. Most, in fact, never got far at all. The majority were filed on handwritten forms by plaintiffs petitioning pro se to sue in pauperis — which is to say, acting on their own behalf because they couldn’t afford attorneys – and in some cases the grounds for dismissal were that they had missed filing deadlines or failed to respond to the court’s inquiries.
It is not even possible to give a number of these suits: One was filed in Dade Superior Court, then assigned not one but at least two new case numbers when it was moved to federal district court in Rome. It was – or they were – ultimately dismissed as frivolous.
That was the case of Robert Allen Cooper, whose troubles appeared to have begun when he stopped at one of Street’s much-discussed road checks. Court papers recount how he ran from the roadblock and into the woods, where a K9 police dog tracked him down. He later contended he sustained physical injuries as well as posttraumatic stress disorder from the dog attack and that these were not adequately addressed by Dade medical attendants when he was later languishing in the county jail.
Other plaintiffs also complained their medical needs were ignored in Dade’s lockup and that county personnel were cruel to them – a Nurse Troxtel figures large in these complaints – and one claimed, like Reese, that deputies beat him up.
One case that was not dismissed stands out because of its Keystone Kops tone. It was filed against the department by a Trenton city police officer who was involved in the high-speed pursuit of a suspect vehicle along with state troopers and a Dade deputy. When the troopers called off the pursuit, everybody stopped but the Dade deputy, who slammed into the back of the Trenton officer’s car.
The Trenton officer sought damages and his wife included a claim for loss of consortium, which means – well, the Sentinel will not presume to explain legal terminology to the reading public.
That case was settled on undisclosed terms, but “with prejudice,” meaning suit cannot be brought again in this cause.
In the other cases, the Sentinel found no record of settlements or judgments at all. Again, most simply went away after a few weeks or a few months for one reason or another. In one case the court record reflects that a court letter to a plaintiff was returned with the notation “not here.”