The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida police framed three black men for burglaries. One was deported because of it, suit says.

The Village of Biscayne Park Police Department. According to the Miami Herald, the police department recently moved from this log cabin to village hall. (Google Maps)

In 2013, in the Miami suburb of Biscayne Park, police officers became so skilled at cracking unsolved burglaries that all it took was the stroke of a pen.

Then-Police Chief Raimundo Atesiano had never seen such success, as he testified at a village council meeting in July of that year. The police department, he said, was boasting a 100 percent clearance rate in burglary cases.

“This is the first time I’ve ever known that to happen in any department that I’ve ever been in,” he said to loud applause, as the Miami Herald reported.

But in fact, it never happened. And Atesiano knew it.

As Atesiano bragged about his department, Clarens Desrouleaux languished in prison, serving time for grand theft and a burglary that prosecutors and a judge now acknowledge he never committed.

Desrouleaux, a Haitian immigrant who has lived legally in the United States for more than 20 years, was one of three black men who federal prosecutors say were victims of a police department’s conspiracy to make itself look good at fighting crime at the expense of innocent people who were framed. One victim was as young as 16. In all three cases, police officers invented evidence, falsified police reports or coerced or fabricated confessions to pin the burglaries on the men — all so that they could maintain impressive crime stats, according to federal criminal court documents.

The consequence of the wrongful conviction for Desrouleaux: five years wasted in prison and deportation back to Haiti, a federal lawsuit now claims.

Former chief Atesiano pleaded guilty Sept. 14 to conspiring to deprive people of civil rights while admitting that he directed subordinate officers to make knowingly false arrests to clear unsolved burglaries. Three other former officers pleaded guilty in July and August to deprivation of civil rights for their roles in the wrongful arrests. They will each be sentenced in the coming weeks.

“The police chief of Biscayne Park essentially wanted to have good stats with 100 percent solve rates on thefts and burglaries, so he ordered his police officers to go after people — from my understanding, black people — with criminal records,” said Cam Cornish, an attorney for one of the three framed men, Erasmus Banmah. “Basically, this was a case of people in positions of power picking on the marginalized society.”

While race was not a factor in the federal criminal case, a Village of Biscayne Park Police Department internal affairs investigation obtained by The Washington Post suggests the command staff may have instructed officers to specifically target black people.

At least four officers said during the 2014 internal investigation that Atesiano and another police captain ordered them to arrest anybody on the street with a record — while one of those officers, Anthony De La Torre, specified he was told to look for black people.

“Officer De La Torre stated the Captain has told him multiple times to pin cases pending on anyone black walking through the streets at night,” the internal affairs report states. “He stated the Chief told him the same thing and the Corporal also relayed the message. He stated, for instance, if they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries. He stated they were basically doing this to have a 100% clearance rate for the city.”

Richard Docobo, Atesiano’s defense attorney, strongly denied that race played a factor in any of the arrests.

“There is no credible evidence that any of the officers at Biscayne Park arrested anyone because of their race or ethnicity,” he told The Post. “The suggestion from anyone that that was the case is false.”

Cornish said he had no understanding of how his client, Banmah, ended up targeted for the five car burglaries, beyond the fact that he is black and has a record. In each arrest report obtained by The Post, police claim their suspicion of Banmah originated from information provided by a “reliable confidential informant.” In some of the reports, the officer claimed Banmah rode with the officer to the crime scene, where the officer claimed Banmah confessed about things that he had stolen: a DVD player, a wheelchair, a “blue bag containing junk.”

It was all made up.

Charges were dropped against Banmah and against the 16-year-old victim, who was framed for four residential burglaries, according to court records. But Desrouleaux didn’t get so lucky.

Police initially arrested Desrouleaux on suspicion that he forged a check connected to a recent home burglary, according to federal court documents. While Desrouleaux was in custody, Atesiano told the arresting officers to charge the man with two open burglaries — knowing that there was no evidence connecting him to the burglaries. They claimed he confessed.

Desrouleaux, who also has a record, faced 30 years in prison for those burglaries, according to his federal lawsuit.

Instead of taking his case to trial and risking decades behind bars, Desrouleaux pleaded guilty and served five. (He was not convicted in the suspected check forgery.)

“Going to trial has its uncertainties,” Sagi Shaked, Desrouleaux’s attorney, told The Post, “and when they’re scaring you and telling you they have this mountain of evidence against you, that’s a scary proposition to take a chance with 30 years.”

Desrouleaux is now back in Haiti, where he was deported following his release from prison on the wrongful burglary and theft cases in August 2017, according to the lawsuit. A judge has since vacated his convictions.

But Shaked said Desrouleaux is still not allowed to return to the United States. He said Desrouleaux is working with immigration lawyers to change that, but in the meantime he remains separated from his family and his two children, who still live in Miami.

“That’s where he built everything for the last 20 years. He established himself in the U.S.,” Shaked said. “He said his life is horrible now, because he has nothing there.”

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