Vague Arrests Muddle Case In Miami Edison High School Brawl

Most of the Miami Edison High students arrested in a recent school fight will be hard to convict of any crime, legal experts say, because police failed to say in their arrest affidavits exactly what the students did.

Officers responding to the Feb. 29 brawl changed the names and contact information on each student's form, but the charges and descriptions of what happened are almost identical on 23 of the 26 forms.

"Form affidavits are a huge red flag that the arrests were done hastily," said Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, a Miami lawyer and past president of the local American Civil Liberties Union. "You have to wonder, did the police really make a determination of wrongdoing for every student, or did they just round everybody up and let someone else sort it out?"

In the 23 near-identical arrest reports, officers wrote they were "monitoring a school lunch recess area." Then, "Defendant and co-defendants conducted a protest . . . Protest became physical when def and co-defs began pushing officers as they were being instructed to return to class."

Though each student is charged with resisting arrest with violence, starting a brawl and disrupting a school assembly, none of the 23 reports specifies what an individual student did to merit the charges.

Attorneys say arrest affidavits must show why police have probable cause to arrest someone. Generically worded copies -- known as form affidavits -- often do not hold up in court.

The day after the arrests, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Barbara Areces found that the arrest forms for two of the juvenile students did not include enough specific information for her to find probable cause that they should be detained or put on home detention.

On Monday, Circuit Judge Lester Langer sent home all but one of the juvenile students without any conditions.

Rodriguez-Taseff compared the Edison cases to the arrests of hundreds of protesters in downtown Miami during the 2003 Free Trade Area of Americas summit.

"The police used form affidavits then, and 99.9 percent of those cases were dropped or dismissed," she said.

In three of the arrest reports, officers gave some extra details about their justification for the charges.

Jerry Garland White, 18, was observed pushing a police sergeant "with great force in the chest," according to his arrest narrative. In another narrative, police said 16-year-old Winchy Saint Hilaire threw a milk carton at an officer's head. He then "began to fight by throwing punches and kicks." Both students are charged with battery on an officer, as is the third student whose arrest form contained specific language.

School officials say 10 officers suffered minor injuries in the melee. Schools police Cmdr. Charles Hurley declined to comment on the similar language of the arrest forms, citing the ongoing investigation.

Joe Pollini, a retired New York police officer, said police are forced to act fast in a large fight or riot situation.

''They're thinking about the quickest, safest way to suppress the incident,'' said Pollini, who teaches a police procedures class at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"We used to pick up 20, 30, 40 people at a time during demonstrations at Central Park," he said. "But you have to prove each one did what you said they did. If there's not video evidence or detailed descriptions on the arrest forms, the vast majority of cases will get thrown out."

Lawyers for the students say the vague arrest narratives will work in their favor in court.

"The arrest forms don't even identify which officers were hit or pushed or struck," said Rod Vereen, a Miami attorney who volunteered to represent some of the students." It's going to be hard for the officers to testify as to who did what among 200 children in a fight."

The kids involved in the brawl are a mix of honor students and habitual class-skippers. Some are in Advanced Placement courses, serve on student government, and hope to go on to college and careers. Others have racked up dozens of unexcused absences and tardies this year.

Vereen, a recently elected ACLU member at-large, said he's hopeful the state attorney's office will drop the felony charges or work out arrangements that allow the students to avoid criminal records.

"We are investigating the validity of the arrests and determining how to proceed just like we do in every case," said Ed Griffith, the office's spokesman. "This is no different."

If prosecutors decide to file formal charges against any of the students, Vereen said he's willing to take the cases to trial.

"I can't see a jury, made up of mothers and fathers, wanting to ruin these children's lives because of a fight that got out of hand," Vereen said.

Miami Herald staff writer Susannah A. Nesmith contributed to this report