Miami-Dade detectives forced to fill staffing gaps, serve court orders

(MIAMI HERALD)   The Miami-Dade Police Department, already short-staffed, recently had to pull detectives away from nabbing drug dealers, swindlers and fugitive felons so they could help serve thousands of subpoenas, child-support orders and divorce documents.

The reason: the economic downturn has spawned a massive rise in court filings, such as foreclosures, repossessions and lawsuits — overwhelming department employees who normally deliver court paperwork.

Miami-Dade’s Court Services Bureau says it has drastically cut down a massive backlog of 6,000 court orders and has hired 11 new civilian process servers to start knocking on doors within weeks.

It can’t come soon enough, say lawyers, who maintain that police staff shortages dealing with a blizzard of court orders has caused unnecessary delays in an already overburdened court system.

“By our count, in the last 11 months, nearly 600 subpoenas have been returned unserved reportedly due to the Department’s inability” to do its job, Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos J. Martinez wrote in a July letter to the county manager.

He attached two witness subpoenas returned to his office, unserved, with the annotation: “No service . . . due to lack of officer manpower.”

During the past year, the court services bureau says it has been tasked every day with serving nearly 800 “writs” — orders from judges for everything from subpoenas to summons to evictions.

Armed and sworn Miami-Dade officers mostly serve domestic-violence restraining orders, evict delinquent homeowners and arrest witnesses who fail to appear in court.

They, too, are undermanned — currently five positions short.

Consider the case of Sergio Diaz. A family court judge last year ordered Miami-Dade police to arrest his son’s mother, who had been denying Diaz child visitation rights and ducking court dates. Police never did — two orders from a judge expired without her arrest, said lawyer Michael Lechtman.

Exasperated and with no money left for legal bills, Diaz gave up and moved to Gainesville to find work, he said.

“If the [police] had done their jobs, maybe my client would have been reunited with his son,” Lechtman said.

CASE BACKLOG

As for the non-sworn civilian servers, the bureau — through attrition — had lost 11 positions by June. With a bare-bones staff and few uniformed officers to pitch in, the backlog of writs to be served by civilian employees ballooned to 6,000 cases by June, said Court Services Bureau Maj. Larry Buck.

Department brass turned to detectives usually assigned to economic crimes, felony warrants, narcotics and strategic and specialized investigations, which probes organized crime.

Over nine weeks, dozens of detectives visited 3,313 homes countywide, successfully serving legal paperwork at just more than half of them, according to an Aug. 19 internal police report. None of the detectives logged overtime.

SAFETY CONCERNS

That angers Miami-Dade police union president John Rivera, who said those detectives should be investigating their own cases during their work hours — not serving subpoenas.

“It’s sad. The government’s first responsibility is public safety and we’re not doing it the right way. I’ve been here 34 years and I’ve never heard of this happening,” said Rivera, who is embroiled in stalled contract negotiations with the county.

Maj. Buck acknowledged that juggling personnel “sometimes is a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. But the whole department is short.”

Detectives from the other bureaus stopped serving subpoenas on Aug. 13.

Since then, the backlog has been cut down to below 2,000, a more manageable number, Buck said. And 11 civilians have since been hired, are in training and should start in a few weeks, he said.

“We’re getting back to normal,” he said.

http://www.miamiherald.com/486/story/1208934.html

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