By Jay Weaver & Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald, March 24, 2017
A Miami federal judge has rejected a motion to throw out a drug-trafficking indictment against Guy Philippe, a prominent public figure in Haiti who was arrested on the island by U.S. agents on Jan. 5, just days before he was going to be sworn in as a senator.
U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga faulted federal authorities for not making a consistent effort to arrest Philippe since his indictment in late 2005, but found prosecutors did not violate his constitutional right to a speedy trial because he had “reneged” on a promise to turn himself in.
The judge also found that Philippe, 49, did not have immunity against prosecution as an elected public official in Haiti because he had not been sworn in before his arrest.
This week, Altonaga delayed Philippe’s federal trial for one month until May 1, requiring him and his defense lawyers to let her know whether he plans to change his plea to guilty by April 17. The trial was delayed because prosecutors recently uncovered FBI tapes from 20 years ago on which the defendant’s voice was recorded.
Before his election as a Haitian senator, Philippe was best known as a national police commander who had led a rebellion to oust former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. The following year, the one-time police official was charged under a sealed indictment in Miami with conspiring to import Colombian cocaine via Haiti into the United States and laundering kickback payments from traffickers.
In her ruling, the judge found that while under indictment, Philippe “had direct communications with U.S. officials, during which he assured he was a ‘man of [his] word’ and would turn himself in, yet he later reneged on that promise, even fleeing on foot when pursued by U.S. and Haitian authorities.”
The judge noted that Philippe waited until the day after his arrest to assert his right to a speedy trial.
Philippe's attorney argued that the trial delay had been “unreasonable” because more than 11 years had passed since the filing of the indictment.
“The government has made no meaningful effort during those many years to bring Mr. Philippe to trial,” his attorney, Zeljka Bozanic, wrote in the dismissal motion.
But her motion ignored various U.S. attempts to arrest Philippe during that period, efforts detailed in the Miami Herald and other news media. Nor did the motion acknowledge the 70-day deadline for a speedy trial. The clock only started ticking after the defendant's first appearance in federal court on Jan. 6.
Though she ultimately sided with federal prosecutors, the judge did fault U.S. authorities for not making a consistent effort to capture Philippe over the past 11 years — despite 10 attempts.
“A rough counting supports the finding the government did nothing to locate and arrest [the] defendant for 91 months — over 7 years of the 11 years at issue,” Altonaga wrote in her ruling. “And during some of this time, [the] defendant appears to have been readily accessible: in 2006 at the U.S. embassy [in Port-au-Prince], and in 2007 when he ran for president of Haiti.”
Since his arrest, Philippe, who pleaded not guilty, has been held at the federal detention center in Miami.
Philippe was the 82nd Haitian national to be extradited for crimes, Haiti's former Justice Minister Camille Edouard Jr., said on a popular radio political talk show.
A Haitian Senate resolution “energetically” condemning his arrest and extradition carried no weight with the judge in Miami, where she dismissed Philippe's assertion that he was entitled to immunity because of his status as a senator. Altonaga noted that on the day of his arrest he was a senator-elect and “not entitled to prosecutorial immunity.”