Tired of nuisance crimes going unpunished? Miami Beach is about to crack down

Miami Beach residents tired of seeing drunk people stumble down the street openly guzzling booze might see changes in 2018.

The city wants to crack down on annoying minor crimes that nearly always end with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Next week, a new city prosecutor will begin reviewing arrests made for violations of the city’s ordinances that typically are not prosecuted by the state attorney. Depending on the case, the new attorney will have the power to go to court and prosecute people accused of crimes such as drinking in public, a violation of the city’s open container law.

“The key is not to put people in jail, but to stop the behavior,” said Aleksandr Boksner, chief deputy city attorney for Miami Beach and former Miami-Dade prosecutor.

Boksner will oversee the new city prosecutor, Yoe Lopez Jr., a young assistant city attorney who graduated from Florida State University’s College of Law in 2017 and was hired by the city in October. On Monday, Lopez will begin reviewing arrests on municipal violations and determining whether they should be prosecuted.

The point of the new approach is to target repeat offenders who habitually break the city’s “quality of life” laws. Public drinking is expected to be the most commonly prosecuted offense. Other frequent municipal offenses include being in public parks and on the beach after hours — dark places where police respond to crimes ranging from petty thefts to violent felonies.

“There are some guys who are arrested 13 to 14 times in a year and they’re not punished,” said John Deutzman, a South Beach resident who moderates a private Facebook group of residents who regularly testify in bond court to encourage tougher penalties for people who are habitually arrested for misdemeanors.

Deutzman said his group is happy the municipal prosecutor will begin work next week. He anticipates this will have an impact on the amount of public drunkenness and unruly behavior associated with that, because people who are repeatedly arrested will now likely face consequences.

Police officers have discretion when making the arrests, and Police Chief Daniel Oates said the department’s policy is to issue a warning to tourists who are unaware of the city’s laws — they won’t be a priority for prosecution.

Oates described the additional threat of prosecution as a tool for cops to stop unruly behavior, particularly in the Beach’s bustling entertainment district.

“Do we spend a lot of time on drinking in public? No. But is it an arrest charge that helps us control abhorrent behavior? Yes,” he told the Miami Herald. “We don’t want to see those charges dismissed. We want to see some rigor to that prosecution.”

Officials decided they needed a city prosecutor when the police department was reviewing arrests and prosecution data for a study of the impact that body-worn cameras have on arrests and prosecutions of different categories of crime.

Department leadership realized that 98 percent of these types of municipal charges were being dropped immediately by the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office — a figure that surprised Oates.

“It was having an unfortunate impact on our ability to conduct that study and gather empirical evidence as to whether the body cam has any benefit in terms of preventing crime,” Oates said.

Boksner estimated that about 600 to 800 municipal criminal arrests on nuisance offenses could now be prosecuted. Before, such cases would be dumped into a sea of charges processed by the state attorney’s office, where municipal crimes do not have a high priority.

“Police were already taking law enforcement action,” Boksner said. “This just puts a local individual in control of the prosecution.”

Lopez will pursue only violations of municipal ordinances. If a city law is broken and there is an accompanying state charge, the case will go to the state attorney’s office.