Last week, Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein sent a letter (thanks, JAABlog) to Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler condemning "offensive, oppressive and highly questionable police tactics in predominately black neighborhoods within your city."
That includes arrests for what Finkelstein calls "walking while black" and hassling kids while "ladies of the night" strut nearby. But perhaps his most troubling accusation is that "several officers have recently started a new tactic design to frustrate discovery depositions."
The public defender attached a transcript of a court hearing about an officer who allegedly refused to answer questions in deposition. The assistant public defender at that hearing opened by accusing the officer's lawyer of foul language.
"This is now the second time in two weeks that he has told me to go fuck myself," said Assistant Public Defender Jason Blank.
The Public Defender's Office has recently been keeping an eye on arrests in mostly black neighborhoods in Fort Lauderdale and believes that some are being made without proper evidence.
"My investigators were using electronic systems the police had that found the police were lying" about arrests, says Finkelstein. In particular, some cops said they had direct visual contact with a drug deal. "My lawyers asked them, 'Where were you when you saw what you claim to have seen?'" Finkelstein explains.
That's the sort of question Offficer Avery Figueras was asked in a deposition regarding a case he had worked. Instead of answering the question, he asked to speak with someone from the State Attorney's Office first to see if he should answer it. Information about specific surveillance tactics is often considered privileged information in police departments.
So after Figueras' counsel allegedly told Blank to fuck himself, Blank told his version of what happened in the deposition:
I asked Officer Figueras to respond to some questions regarding his placement at the location, where the confidential informant was dropped off... and then he said, "I am refusing to answer questions. I will not create evidence for you... I am not answering questions as to surveillance positions." And I asked him, "Are you asserting a privilege?" And he said, "No, I am refusing to answer."
Figueras then asked for the state attorney to get involved, according to Blank.
This would have been a typical scuffle between prosecution and defense if the judge hadn't then offered her own opinion. Judge Cynthia Imperato, herself a former Tallahassee police officer, spoke to the officer's lawyer, Michael Ahearn:
The bigger problem, it is not just your client, but this has been going on with Fort Lauderdale in general. Someone has advised them. And I have spoken with the higher-ups, which are very upset with the officers having this response.
Finkelstein says that officers had gotten "bad legal advice" from somebody -- possibly their union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 31, which steps in to protect officers when they're accused of using improper police tactics.
"That's not true. The union has never put anything out," says Jack Lokeinsky, president of the local union.
He adds: "There are questions that an officer doesn't have to answer... I don't have a problem with an officer asking for advice from an attorney because some police tactics questions are not public record."
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Travis Mandell, spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, says the department's lawyer, Brad Weisman, "has discussed it and given some training to our officers" about which questions to answer. "We don't see it as denying answering questions," he adds. We'll update with more details about that training when we receive them.
As for Judge Imperato's accusation, Mandell says, "We have a great working relationship with that specific judge."