Like the Miccosukees, the neighboring Seminole tribe has had its share of sovereignty-related squabbles, especially since building the massive Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. In 2007, an Air Force airman was arrested by tribal police in a fight at the casino and was denied the right to see evidence against him. When former Playboy model and actress Anna Nicole Smith died there of a drug overdose around the same time, Seminole cops led the investigation; Broward authorities' power was limited. And the tribe has long simply ignored personal-injury suits filed by visitors to its casinos.
But perhaps no tribe has had such a contentious recent history involving sovereignty as the Miccosukee, who in the past decade have waged an escalating cold war with the American government.
In 1997, Kirk Douglas Billie, a 29-year-old Miccosukee man who had previously used his status as a member of the tribe to dodge county charges of domestic abuse, drove his ex-girlfriend's SUV into an Everglades canal as the couple's sons, aged 3 and 5, slept in the back seat. He jumped to safety before the car hit water, and the kids drowned. The tribal court absolved him. ''The tribe members believe they have handled the issues, Indian to Indian," tribe chairman Billy Cypress explained at the time.
Unfortunately for Billie, the canal was on state property, and the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office stuck him with two counts of first-degree murder. Miccosukee lawyers blocked prosecutors from tribal land and threatened to arrest armed agents. The tribe refused to furnish police reports, and Indian cops who cooperated with the state investigation were fired, prosecutors claimed. Still, in 2001, Billie was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The Miccosukee court is often accused of meting out lax or unbalanced justice. "It was not remotely like any legitimate justice system I've ever experienced," says Sandy Bohrer, a Miami attorney who once argued a case there involving casino gaming (and sometimes represents New Times in press matters). "Frankly, my experience was that the American government's guilt [over its historical mistreatment of Native Americans] had led to a travesty of justice."
"It's not exactly like [the U.S. system], no," counters Miccosukee Tribe representative Guy Lewis, a former U.S. attorney in Florida. "But is it fair? Unequivocally, yes. Is it rigorous? You better believe it. I think the tribal court is probably more concerned with rehabilitation and kind of a family-oriented, holistic resolution than our courts are."
Former tribal police officer Alonzo Moncur says that abiding by the tribe's "lenient" sense of justice "contradicts the oath that you take for the State of Florida." The Miami Gardens native joined the 80-plus officers of the Miccosukee Police Department — which includes no tribe members — in November 2004 at age 23. He soon learned of the department's "backwards" policies — such as letting drunk-driving suspects cool their heels in a cell until, he says, "they're ready to blow a triple zero," then letting them go.
Another former cop, who requests anonymity, corroborates Moncur's claim. Now employed by another local force, he was a 19-year-old police novice when he enlisted in August 2004. After arresting a tribe member suspected of driving drunk, he says, officers were supposed to call a tribal judge at home. They were invariably given "catch and release" instructions, he says.
Soon after the anonymous policeman joined the force, he says he spotted Chairman Cypress' silver Mercedes swerving recklessly as it sped west on Tamiami Trail. When he flashed his cruiser's lights and pulled him over, the chairman was unapologetic. "He said, 'You know who I am, right?' " claims the former cop. "Then he shut the door and fled."
Cypress led him on a chase, the officer says, before finally pulling over again. "Fuck off" was the chairman's blunt greeting, claims the cop: "He was pretty much trashed."
Cypress, he adds, was never charged in any court for the night's driving crimes.
Attorney Lewis says the cop fabricated the account. "That's pure fantasy," Lewis said of the cop's claims. He says the anonymous officer was fired because of performance issues.
On January 29 of that same year, the chairman was heading west along the trail in his red Lincoln Mark LT pickup truck, according to court documents. Just before 10 p.m., he smashed into a white Ford Econoline van carrying Maria and Rene Aguilar. The Miami couple were on their way home from Fort Myers. According to an insurance analysis later filed in court, Cypress was traveling in the wrong lane.
A blood test pegged the chairman's blood-alcohol content at .141 — well over the .08 legal limit. During Cypress' ensuing DUI case in tribal court, he insisted he had downed no more than two Bud Lights. "I testified to what I saw: that to me, he appeared intoxicated," the anonymous officer says. "There was some talk that the officers involved were going to be fired, but I didn't care."