A Seminole Moment | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

A Seminole Moment

Four months removed from a tour of duty in Iraq, Air Force Airman John Thomas was back in South Florida. Of all people, Thomas thought, he had earned the right to enjoy some of those American liberties he and his fellow servicemen and women had fought for in the Middle East.

On the night of April 22, 2006, a Saturday, the 26-year-old Thomas and two friends went to Murphy's Law, a nightclub located within the entertainment complex of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. A friend of Thomas' had a friend in the house band. That was their hangout.

A fight that erupted at Murphy's Law in the early morning of April 23, 2006, didn't involve Thomas, but he was the guy who found himself on the ground, pinned by a Seminole Police Department officer and handcuffed. In the year since, he's been sinking in the kind of legal quicksand that exists only on the Seminole reservation. Facing a five-year prison sentence, Thomas may be tried in Broward County Circuit Court without the right to see the evidence — or lack thereof — against him.

Thomas hired Alexander Penalta, a Boca Raton-based attorney who is also an adjunct law professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. For all Penalta's legal credentials, there is no law-school class for defending clients not entitled to basic constitutional rights, like due process of law. And since Thomas was arrested by Seminole law enforcement on Seminole land, that's exactly his predicament.

"This man has gone through bombings in Iraq," Penalta says. "He's defended his country, and he comes here and he's not treated like an American."

Thomas has the close-cropped hair, clenched jaw, level gaze, and firm handshake common to military men. On advice of his attorney, Thomas declined to explain in detail the incident that led to his arrest.

The probable-cause affidavit written by Seminole Police Officer Susie Lawson describes how she and her fellow officers responded to a report of a fight at Murphy's Law involving a patron, Rodrigo Babich, presumably a friend of Thomas'. Lawson writes that when Babich did not leave the premises, she arrested him.

Lawson's report claims that, while leading Babich to her patrol car, Thomas approached her, "grabbed me by my shirt and pushed me, causing me to lose my balance."

According to Penalta, during his arrest, Thomas was taunted by another Seminole Police officer, Ulysses Boldin, who was dating Lawson at the time — the two officers are now married. Penalta says that Boldin is a reservist in the U.S. Army and that the taunting was related to the ages-old rivalry among different branches of the armed forces.

"They were saying things like, 'You don't know what it's like to fight,' talking about Iraq," Penalta says. "I'm sure they were just trying to get [Thomas] angry. That's improper for a police officer to do that."

The Seminole Police Department, which is under no legal obligation to cooperate with the United States' Freedom of Information Act, refused to provide New Times with a copy of the police report connected with Babich's arrest. Broward County court records indicate Babich pleaded guilty to trespassing, a misdemeanor. The Seminole Police also denied New Times requests to discuss the incident with Boldin or Lawson.

Five days after the incident, on April 28, 2006, Lawson issued a new case report related to the incident. In it, she intensifies the details that led to Thomas' arrest, adding that, in addition to grabbing her shirt, Thomas took hold of her right shoulder, causing her to lose her grip on Babich, whom she was in the process of arresting. The report also added details about how, after Lawson fell, "Mr. Thomas then charged toward me in an aggressive manner by attempting to push [Lawson] again. I then defended myself by striking Mr. Thomas in his facial area and upper torso area to attempt to stop his aggressive actions."

To Penalta, the second report is conspicuous for its hitting upon "buzzwords" that would strengthen the case for battery of a law enforcement officer. "The officer wrote the report that night and then amended the report several days later," Penalta says. "Any police officer or prosecutor will tell you that's a huge problem."

In U.S. courts, a criminal defense attorney is provided with all of the relevant evidence in a case, including exculpatory evidence — that is, anything that could clear his client. Considering that the Seminole entertainment complex is chock-full of surveillance cameras, Penalta notes, surveillance video must have captured Thomas' arrest.

Initially, the Seminole Police Department told Penalta it would provide a report of the evidence if he mailed them $1 and a self-addressed stamped envelope. But last July, the department wrote a letter to Penalta informing him that it would not provide that information.