Coronavirus justice: Fewer arrests in Miami, inmates spared bonds and postponed hearings

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Under normal times, the Miami man accused of using a fake ID to try and sell scrap metal would have needed to post a sizable bond before walking free to await trial — after all, he had just finished a prison stint for kidnapping.

But as he appeared Wednesday in Miami-Dade court, less than a day after his arrest, Circuit Judge Mindy Glazer instead ordered him to house arrest without having to pay any money to get out of jail.

“Everybody’s going to be locked away in their house anyway for 15 days,” Glazer said.

Such is justice under the threat of the coronavirus, which has caused a worldwide pandemic, wrecked the nation’s economy and forced South Florida governments to severely restrict how people gather in public spaces.

No virus will stop crime completely. But arrests and the jail population are down as cops, lawyers and judges try to strike a delicate balance between protecting the public and administering justice, and needlessly putting people behind bars during society’s unprecedented shutdown.

Because defendants have the right to go before a judge within a day of their arrest, Miami-Dade’s bond court will continue, even as officials announced late Wednesday that all felony court calendars will be canceled next week.

Wednesday morning in bond court had the usual array of people accused of cocaine possession, stabbings and a murder.

One woman was arrested for intentionally knocking over a cup full of hot milk during an argument at a Miami cafeteria and scalding a waitress. She was allowed to leave jail without paying a bond.

Then there was Jerry Miller, 35, who Miami cops say stole beer, bottled water and detergent from a metal storage container at Wynwood’s Panther Coffee. “He’s the main problem in the Wynwood Walls area,” Officer Ivan Miranda told Glazer on Wednesday morning. “If he gets released, he’s going to go back ... and burglarize all the businesses that are closed.”

Glazer agreed he needed to put up some money, ordering a $6,000 bond. The homeless Miller will have to fork over $600, ensuring he’ll likely stay in jail for awhile. “It’s tantamount to no bond,” Assistant Public Defender Roy Uguarte protested.

Overall, jail bookings have dropped, Miami-Dade corrections records show. On Monday, for example, police officers booked only 84 people into Miami-Dade’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center. In contrast, on March 1, before the coronavirus spread was declared a global pandemic, officers jailed 123 people.

There were 3,753 inmates in Miami-Dade jails as of early Wednesday. That’s down from the average of the past 180 days, when the jail population has been nearly 4,000 people.

Across Miami-Dade, police officers are still patrolling the streets and investigating crimes, even if their focuses have shifted and resources are being stretched thin.

On Miami Beach, officers are now patrolling to ensure nobody is trespassing on the sands of South Beach, which normally would be teeming with spring breakers but is now off-limits to the public. Cops on tiny Key Biscayne, the island town, are now watching out for anyone violating a 10 p.m. curfew.

In North Miami, police officers are handing out fliers to small businesses explaining the county’s new restrictions closing all restaurants for dining, plus bars, movie theaters and gyms. Just before the closures went into effect at 11 p.m Tuesday., North Miami officers visited a local bar that still had a teeming St. Patrick’s Day party, reminding them about the new restriction — violations are technically crimes.

“We’re not looking to arrest business owners,” North Miami Police Chief Larry Juriga said. “We’re looking to educate them.”

Police departments say they are urging officers to use discretion, issuing civil citations or “promise-to-appear” notices in which defendants agree they will show up to a future court date.

“This doesn’t mean we are going to stop doing police work,” Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo “Freddy” Ramirez said. “We just have to prioritize our strategies given the effect this virus has on the entire criminal justice system and our officers’ well-being.”

Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina said he wants cops to be mindful of people that may have lost jobs and be under enormous stress.

“We want to do our part to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Colina said in a video message sent to officers this week. “If you don’t have to arrest someone, then don’t. if you don’t have put your hands on somebody, then don’t.”

That doesn’t mean arrests aren’t happening.

Late on Tuesday, Miami-Dade narcotics detectives raided the One Miami condo home of Noel Yaraotero, 38, as part of an undercover cocaine deal set up by an informant. Yaraotero was found to have two kilograms of cocaine in a blag bag, police said; he was booked into jail early Wednesday on cocaine trafficking charges.

Miami-Dade police also arrested a man named Domincue Andrews, who is accused of gunning down his own brother during an argument over $30 at a motel in Florida City. Andrews is charged with murder.

Another arrest was Louis Pronio, 33, who was cuffed after he disembarked from one of the last cruise ships to return to PortMiami. He’ll be shipped off to Pennsylvania, where he has an outstanding warrant on a rape charge.

The machinations of justice are still unfolding too.

Prosecutors this week set up video kiosks at the State Attorney’s Office, and at the Juvenile Assessment Center, to allow for video interviews with police officers, witnesses and victims to “help facilitate justice and limit potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus.”

“Since activating these kiosks since Monday, March 16th, we have had 156 civilians and police officers successfully use the system. We expect this number to rise due to its user ease and efficiency,” State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.

This week in court, limiting the amount of people in the jail has been a priority for Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez, who has worked out agreements with prosecutors to release people accused of misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies. The Public Defender’s Office has also filed dozens of requests trying to get inmates out, which led to gridlock in hearings on Monday.

“Our jailed clients are presumed innocent and there is no social distancing. With so many highly vulnerable, God forbid there’s an outbreak in the jail because for those awaiting trial it could become a death sentence,” Martinez said.

“The jail must have fewer inmates for maximum flexibility to isolate and quarantine infected individuals. Fewer inmates means better infection control and it’s much easier to cope with the jail staff shortages that are certain to come.”

The Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building has largely been closed, with only emergency hearings supposed to be underway, and most lawyers and judges rotating in and out, the rest working remotely from home. On Wednesday, Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who oversees the criminal division, announced all felony calendars will be canceled for at least two weeks starting March 23.

“The purpose of this plan is to clear the REG courthouse out as much as possible for the next 2 weeks so that we can follow the CDC guidelines and keep as many people as possible at home and healthy and ‘flatten the curve,’ “ Sayfie wrote in an email to judges.

First-appearance hearings will continue. The setup limits the public anyway. Inmates have long appeared via closed-circuit television from West Miami-Dade’s Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, with lawyers, clerks, the bailiff and judge at the Gerstein building inside a first-floor courtroom.

On Wednesday, the calendar was short and the coronavirus a looming presence.

Judge Glazer wore gloves as she was handed arrest affidavits for review. When staff tried to help a man who showed up in the wrong court, he thrust a document in the air. “I’m not touching anything,” the Spanish-language interpreter replied.

At a time when travel has ground to a halt, cases for people wanted in other states were particularly vexing. One man had an open warrant from 1992 for a minor case in New York. Nobody could figure out if authorities would travel from the city hard hit by the coronavirus to get him.

“Why would they send him back to New York when it’s shut down?” said Glazer, who postponed the case until Thursday.

The local cases were mostly for low-level crimes. A man was accused of attacking his lover; he was granted free release under Miami-Dade’s pretrial services program. Another was charged with cocaine possession. One man was accused of stealing from Macy’s. Judge Glazer ordered him to be released and told him to stay away from the store.

“Fortunately, Macy’s will be closed for the next two weeks,” she said.

Charlene Scott was charged with attacking another woman with a blade in a fight. Had it “not been for the pandemic,” the prosecutor said, Scott would have been forced to post a bond.

But Scott told the judge she did not have a job and was living with her mother. Glazer ordered her to be released without paying a bond — but she must be confined to house arrest.

“Thank you!” Scott said, twirling in place. “Thank you, your honor!”