Coronavirus

Before finally closing its casino, the Miccosukee tribe jails a bartender over $36

After resisting for days, the Miccosukee tribe is finally closing its casino doors — but not before its police department arrested and jailed a bartender for undercharging $36.41 in drinks.

The tribe had come under criticism for refusing to close its hotel and slot machines, as have every other casino in Florida, to help stop the spread of the dangerous coronavirus. County and state authorities have no jurisdiction over the independent Indian nation.

Finally, the Miccosukee tribe announced that it would close its doors at 6 p.m. on Sunday, although it said “some businesses” would remain open. A press release did not say which ones.

The closure did not come soon enough for Jaime Rodriguez, 50, who had been terrified to go to work for the past two weeks. But with a family to support, and afraid he would get fired, Rodriguez kept showing up — as did other scared casino employees who were not given masks and only told to keep cleaning their hands and work stations.

Rodriguez was also sick, miserable and coughing last week. He later went to the hospital, but said he tested negative for the coronavirus.

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“We all wanted them to close, but we didn’t have the power to make them close,” said Rodriguez, who has worked food service jobs at the casino for six years.

When he was showed up Saturday for his afternoon shift, a Miccosukee tribal police officer arrested him on a felony charge of theft by a hotel employee. The reason: Four days earlier, shortly before 4 a.m., he failed to charge patrons for some mixed drinks.

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The casino security officers saw the transactions on surveillance video, and asked the tribal police department to arrest, according to an arrest report by Officer J. Hess.

“It was a mistake, I didn’t mean to not charge,” Rodriguez told the Miami Herald. “With everything going on, with the coronavirus, I was distracted.”

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The arrest on Saturday night came as police departments across South Florida have tried to cut back on arrests for minor crimes, as a way to cut back on the jail population and keep distance from the citizens who may be infected by the highly contagious respiratory virus. The tribe did not respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

Rodriguez’s lawyer, Saam Zangeneh, blasted the tribe for keeping the casino running, all while public gathering spaces across the country have shut down.

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“I was so angry at their selfish, dangerous and greedy decision to stay open,” Zangeneh said. “I didn’t think I could get more disgusted with at the Miccosukees — and then I saw what they did to poor Jaime. He was arrested for a felony and sent to jail for having his mind on a global pandemic and ringing up the wrong number of drinks.”

The Miccosukee tribe has about 600 members and has run the lucrative gambling operation for more than two decades. The fiercely independent tribe is a sovereign nation, and state and county authorities have no jurisdiction over their land; the federal Indian gaming commission does have the power to shut down the casino.

Its police department is certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and has the authority to arrest non-Indians and book them into Miami-Dade County jails.

The Seminole tribe, which runs six casinos in Florida, on Friday announced it was closing its gambling operations.

Over the decades, state prosecutors in Miami-Dade have clashed with the Miccosukee tribe over serving subpoenas on the reservation in a murder case against a Miccouskee member; illegal tribal roadblocks on a state road; and even getting tribal police reports in a fatal crash involving Indians that happened off the reservation.

Two years ago, Miccosukee tribal police seized a baby at a Kendall hospital, drawing criticism from elected leaders who said the tribe was overstepping its authority.

Even in announcing the closure of the casino, the tribe struck a defiant tone on Sunday, saying it remained open because it was considering the “finances of our staff.”

“Although under no legal obligation, and while some businesses remain open, we have decided as a sovereign nation that for the safety of our remaining employees and our loyal guests, it is best to encourage individuals to practice social distancing by removing ourselves as one of the possible destinations from their list,” the tribe said in a press release.

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