Florida has perhaps the most liberal public records laws in the United States, but you wouldn’t know that by making simple requests to the government officials in charge of those records.
And you especially wouldn’t know that in Hialeah, a Miami-Dade municipality that has a long history of corruption, despite its “City of Progress” nickname.
That’s where we ended up getting detained by police on Tuesday because, in their words, we had “invaded” the city clerk’s office and “attacked” them with our cameras, putting them “under threat” and causing them to feel “intimidated.”
“You are using cameras because you are intimidating people with them,” said Hialeah Police Sergeant Julian Guerra, a man who makes a living intimidating others , who despite using the inflammatory words above, was unable to articulate any reasonable suspicion that we had committed a crime.
But Guerra wanted us to know he was being a nice guy. And despite the fact that he detained us and demanded our identifications, he was reasonably nice for Hialeah police standards, which is not saying much.
But he was obviously manipulative.
Considering this is the same police department that embarked on a camera confiscation crusade earlier this year, I guess we will label him a “good cop,” which we all know is an act. In fact, if you’re an old Sopranos fan, you will see some similarities between Paulie Walnuts and Julian Guerra.
It all started when we walked into city hall with Florida public records guru Joel Chandler, who has sued hundreds of government agencies for refusing to comply with the state public record law. Here are a couple of our previous adventures with other agencies in Miami-Dade County.
The Florida public records law is pretty basic. Any citizen can walk into any government agency and make a verbal request to inspect and photograph records.
But government officials tend to force citizens to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops to obtain the records, usually insisting the requests be made in writing, allowing them to throw the request on a back burner and go back to their usual business of whatever it is they don’t want us to see, which is why they go into a panic when they see us walk in with cameras.
In fact, it was Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who spent two decades as a cop, who first told me I was not allowed to video record inside city hall because of some “policy” that they never produced and that we later learned doesn’t exist.
But I knew there was no such policy, so I continued recording despite the mayor’s objections and despite objections from his chief of staff, Arnie Alonso, who planted his face right in front of my lens, ordering me, threatening me and finally just “politely asking” me to stop recording only for me to continue recording after “politely asking” him to respect my First Amendment rights.
Considering Alonso received a $25,000-a-year pay increase after Hernandez took office in 2012, he should be happily touting his city to outside visitors as a loyal ambassador.
Former Miami Herald reporter Elaine De Valle, who says her public records requests are regularly ignored, wrote the following about Alonso on her blog, where she covers local politics.
The one-time city parks employee, who beat accusations that he stole vendor monies and rose through the ranks under former Mayor Julio Robaina’s reign, went from being the mayor’s assistant before the November elections to “chief of staff” now — a promotion that apparently comes with a 62 percent raise.
Yes, at the same time as firefighters, cops and street employees have their paychecks cut by five and 10 and 17 percent, the mayor’s main lackey gets a $25,000 a year bonus — basically for watching his boss’ butt.
According to City Clerk David Concepcion, Alonso went from an annual salary of $40,200 a year to just over $65,000. Monthly, his paycheck has gone from just over $3,000 to almost $5,500. I guess when Hernandez says these are “tough economic times,” he only means it for some. Not for Arnie. It’s an economic boom for Arnie.
But Alonso must be doing something right considering Hernandez was not one of the three mayors in Miami-Dade arrested last month, even though that is viewed as a badge of honor in Hialeah. The fact that Hernandez was not among several Hialeah officials issued a federal subpoena last week for an investigation into the previous mayor was also a cause of celebration for Alonso, according to the Miami Herald.
When several Hialeah politicians and others entangled in the tax-evasion case of former Mayor Julio Robaina were served with federal subpoenas this week, it stirred speculation that the criminal investigation was widening at City Hall.
In reality, those served are viewed as key witnesses by the U.S. attorney’s office, as prosecutors prepare for Robaina’s trial, scheduled for early November. Among those subpoenaed to testify: Hialeah Councilwoman Vivian Casals-Muñoz, who notarized financial documents for Robaina; former Councilman Guillermo “Willie” Zuñiga, who borrowed money from Robaina; and political insider Roberto Blanco, who allegedly delivered cash-filled envelopes to Robaina as payments from a convicted Ponzi schemer who borrowed large sums from the former mayor.
Current Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who also loaned money to the same investment scammer, has not been subpoenaed, according to his chief of staff, Arnie Alonso.
But now Alonso needs to worry about the lawsuit Chandler will probably file for being told that his request needed to be made in writing. And the city will also have to contend with possible litigation over having detained us for attempting to exercise our Constitutionally protected right to request public records.
None of us provided our state-issued driver’s license to police as they demanded. I gave them my homemade press pass, which I wear around my neck and contains my name, picture and address to this blog.
At one point during our detainment, while he kept walking into me, forcing me to walk backwards, invading my personal space while accusing us of invading city hall, Guerra pulled the old, “you’re shaking,” routine, insinuating that I must be a criminal because why else would I get nervous around a man with a gun who keeps inching towards me as if he is about to pounce.
This is not necessary nervousness, but a natural reaction known as the “fight-or-flight response.”
The fight-or-flight response (also called the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response, hyperarousal, or the acute stress response) is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.
It was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon.[a] His theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, priming the animal for fighting or fleeing.
More specifically, the adrenal medulla produces a hormonal cascade that results in the secretion of catecholamines, especially. This response is recognized as the first stage of a general adaptation syndrome that regulates stress responses among vertebrates and other organisms.
When you are being detained, you can’t fight or take flight without the risk of getting pummeled and killed, so you are forced to stand there, containing your adrenalin while trying to maintain your camera steady, which the cops have learned to twist into accusing you of acting suspicious.
It’s not much different than the “stop resisting” routine when they are piling on top of you, trying to handcuff you while you struggle to breathe. Or the old, “I was fear of my life” routine to justify beating or killing you.
My Facebook friend Kyle, who saw one of the videos, stated the following about the “shaking” comment, which I agree with:
Carlos, I think his “shaking” comment is a bad attempt at somehow building reasonable suspicion that you are under the influence of some chemical other than caffeine… That would give him the opportunity to prolong your conversation.
However, he is clearly trying to illegally detain you in an attempt to “investigate” — which his way of saying he’s going to question you until you give him enough to arrest you. And that is unconstitutional…
As you can see in the inflammatory language Guerra used to describe our actions, cops are trained to twist lawful actions into unlawful actions, which is why so many people, including attorneys, recommend not engaging with them at all.
But as a journalist, I need to engage with them because it’s part of my job. I’m also confident I am not going to say anything incriminating.
I try to be as transparent as I expect them to be, so I will answer their questions without giving up my rights, especially if I am going into city hall with my cameras making public records requests.
My goal is to get to the point where I can make my public records requests without getting detained and without having to file a lawsuit, so it’s important they know who I am and what I am trying to accomplish because I will create a huge headache for them if they’re not too careful.
One guy who has a strong handle on his fight-or-flight response is PINAC correspondent Jeff Gray, who has been taking lessons from Chandler on public records requests as you can see in the videos below where he and his friend Thomas Covenant visit several government agencies in North Florida.
In his videos, you can see a much more calm, reasonable demeanor from all parties, which metaphorically sums up the differences between North Florida and South Florida. It’s much more aggressive down here.
Also below, in the first two videos, are Juan Santana’s footage of Tuesday’s escapade where you can see Guerra moving into me while I am moving back, beginning just after the 1:10 mark in the second video.
I was in fear for my life, to put it in cop’s words, although you can see I was not shaking as much as he claimed. Typical shyster cop.
On a side note, I have switched hosts, which is why the blog has been going through weird tech issues over the last two weeks, but I’m hoping we have resolved all the issues.
However, the transition has been costly, really costly, so if you can afford to donate a few dollars, it would be greatly appreciated. Just click the link in the right-hand corner or the one below.
We’re not done with Hialeah yet.