Sonny's Last Stand

Coming soon to a courtroom near you: dueling conspiracy theories that pit Fort Lauderdale's finest against their political bosses. One certain verdict: There's a price to pay for tangling with civic activist Sonny Irons.

Irons calls the lawsuit his "last stand," and if that description seems overwrought, step through the looking glass and consider what follows.

Fast-backward to June 3, 1994, a day the events of which, taken out of context, seem as incomprehensible as a police-union member trying to have the city's latest police chief arrested for carrying a gun.

The scene is a half-completed, two-story brick home in the Riverside Park neighborhood of southwestern Fort Lauderdale. Seventeen armed police officers, state revenue agents, code-enforcement inspectors, and an assistant state attorney step onto Sonny Irons' acre-and-a-half property with a search warrant after removing a padlock with a pair of bolt cutters.

Irons and his wife, Judy, are inside a shower house that stands apart from the home they're building. "Judy had just finished her morning run around the property and had taken off her bathing suit," Irons recalls. Specifically, he remembers Judy standing at the sink, plucking her eyebrows. "I think because I was in the shower at the time, my nine millimeter was on the back of the toilet."

Outside, the uniformed troops encounter the Irons' oldest son, John, who is wearing a holstered handgun similar to his father's. Judy hears John yelling and moves to the door of the shower house to see about the commotion.

"She was standing just outside the door there, and I could see all these police officers," Irons says. "They were all shouting at both of us to come out. Judy kept saying, 'But I'm naked!' They kept saying, 'Come out, just come out!'" He adds: "I was behind her, partially hidden."

After searching Irons the police allow both adults to get dressed, then escort them inside the house with their children and begin a five-hour search of the property. The time is approximately 9:30 a.m. Shortly after noon one officer leaves the scene to pick up several boxes of pizza. The authorities eat while they work.

A city building inspector presents Irons with a pair of citations for minor electrical code violations -- one of the violations for an extension cord not approved by Underwriters Laboratories. "When I was taken inside to receive the code violations, officer Diaz followed me and was standing behind me, and he said to me, 'You know, Sonny, how long have I known you?' I said, 'I don't know, Mario. A long time. Nine, ten, eleven years.' He said, 'You know, you and I have changed a lot in that time, but your wife still looks wonderful.'"

Meanwhile, Irons claims, another cop stood in front of him, slapping his nightstick against his palm. "I got the feeling they were trying to egg me on, make me say or do something that could be misconstrued as something aggressive," Irons says.

Officers who were on the scene say Irons invented the thuggish overtones and misinterpreted their comments. Facts not in dispute: the pizza; an unfulfilled threat by Sgt. Doris Siebert to remove Irons' youngest son, Prince, as a ward of the state; another threat to tow away the family's 53-foot salvage tug because it lacks Florida registration numbers. (Being foreign-registered, it required none.)

By midafternoon law-enforcement personnel begin to depart. They take with them a fax machine, computer, telephone answering machine, and several boxes of evidence. The evidence includes business records, because the search warrant had been issued by a judge as part of an investigation of sales-tax fraud related to Irons' home business.

But the "evidence" also includes several hundred documents relating directly to Irons' ongoing political activities: membership rosters of local civic associations, telephone lists of people who supported certain city commission candidates, page after page of addresses where campaign signs have been erected.

In a memorandum five months later, assistant state attorney Scott Dressler explained why he declined to prosecute Irons. The reason seemed simple. According to Dressler, Irons' most egregious criminal act was the apparent failure to pay the state $87.96 in sales taxes.

"It has been a year since the screaming, shaking, and cursing Fort Lauderdale police officers and other governmental officials forced their way onto our property and perpetrated an act as violent as rape on my family," Judy Irons wrote to the city commission in June 1995. "Our sons, who with their parents and neighbors have planted trees, cleaned filth from streets, constructed sidewalks, and attended hundreds of civic meetings, watched with horror as our police invaded every nook and cranny of their homestead, dumping clothes and files on floors, kicking and trampling their possessions in a futile effort to get something -- anything -- on their father."

"Violated" is how Sonny Irons says he felt after the raid.

Violated perhaps, but hardly defenseless. Within 48 hours of the event, according to Irons, his friend Jack Latona had introduced him to well-known civil rights lawyer Bruce Rogow.

So began the formal evolution of a conspiracy theory and of the present-day lawsuit, brought by the entire Irons family. The suit claims the City of Fort Lauderdale violated their first and fourth amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution -- rights to free expression and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Given the strong personal ties between Latona and Irons, it's not surprising the commissioner was present in the birthing room of litigation.

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