MIAMI — Dressed in a shirt and tie, Derek S. Williams had just completed a job interview when he tried to drive his new, bright red BMW convertible out of a parking garage in an exclusive part of downtown Miami.
When he arrived at the exit booth, however, he realized he had misplaced his parking stub.
“I was looking for the parking ticket to see if maybe I had dropped it on the floor, or somewhere else in the car, but I could not find it, so I paid the full price,” Williams said.
But after Williams paid the $21 full fare, the attendant stared at him, looked over his car, and asked to see some identification.
“He wanted to see my driver license and I asked why, and explained he had no authority to ask me for any personal information and to please lift the gate so I could leave,” Williams recalled.
The attendant refused, again asked Williams for his driver’s license, and ultimately called the police. By the time police arrived, the attendant had confirmed with Williams’ prospective employer that he had left his parking stub in their office following an interview.
Williams filed a lawsuit on Sept. 9 against the building’s owner and a subcontractor that manages its parking garage, alleging racial profiling and false imprisonment in the May 16 incident.
“They kidnapped me, and would not let me leave because I was a black man driving a new BMW, in a building where few blacks are ever seen,” Williams insisted.
Williams is an unemployed paralegal who was visiting the building for a job interview when the encounter took place. His attorney, Scott W. Leeds of The Cochran Firm, is seeking unspecified damages for mental pain and suffering, and for the humiliation he says Williams endured.
“They had absolutely no right or reason to hold him against his will, and it was only done because he was a black man driving an expensive new car,” Leeds said.
“This was a well-dressed, articulate man, but they didn’t believe the car belonged to him and treated him like he had committed a crime.’’
The lawsuit names Brickell Square, LLC, owner and operator of One Brickell Square, a 28-story, high-end luxury office and retail tower located at 801 Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami, and Central Parking Systems, Inc., a Tennessee-based company that manages the facility’s parking garage, as defendants in the case.
Representatives from Brickell Square, LLC did not respond to emails, repeated phone calls or messages seeking comment.
Jim Bond, executive vice president of Central Parking Systems, said from the company’s Nashville, TN corporate headquarters, that standard company policy was followed in the Williams incident, and that in no way was Williams singled out.
“All I can say is the cashier followed company policy, and we get certain information from individuals, including driver’s licenses, when they don’t have a ticket,” Bond explained. “It’s company policy and we do it nationwide, for everyone.’’
Edson Alfaro, an Area Manager for Central Parking Systems who was involved in the May 16 incident, also denies any mistreatment of Williams.
“I remember him, and the incident. He lost his ticket and they asked him to show proof the car was his,” Alfaro explained. “When you lose a ticket, we can’t let the car out without some type of proof it belonged to him, but he refused to show any I.D.”
Alfaro acknowledged he and other garage employees, all of whom are white Hispanics, would not allow the car to leave. But he insisted that Williams was free to go at any time during the incident, which lasted more than an hour.
“He was not kidnapped. He could have left, but not the car. After we refused to let him leave with the car, without any proof, it was him who refused to leave, so we called the police,” Alfaro said.
The company’s actions in this case appear to be at odds with information listed on signs posted around the garage, and at the payment booth.
According to the signs, customers who lose their tickets are required to pay a $21 flat rate, regardless of the amount of time they were parked in the garage.
“This facility only provides a parking space,’’ the signs read. “The facility does not provide safekeeping for your vehicle or its contents (including radar detectors, car phones and sound systems). We will not be responsible if your car or contents are stolen or damaged.’’
The signs continue: “The ticket you received is not a receipt for your vehicle, but a method for calculating your parking charge. The attendants are present solely to collect money and are unable to verify ownership of the vehicles departing this garage. If you do not agree with these terms, you may leave the facility now at no charge.’’
Bond said those signs are posted in all of their facilities throughout the country, but they do not detail all of the company’s procedures.
“That is our standard disclaimer, that’s used nationwide, but we do ask for information like driver’s licenses when a person does not have a ticket to keep from having a car stolen,” Bond said.
Williams said, “I explained they had no right to hold me there, and that this was kidnapping and racial profiling. If I was driving a beat up Chevy, there would not have been any problem.”
Although the lawsuit does not allege kidnapping, it does allege that Williams was falsely imprisoned and subjected to intentional infliction of severe emotional distress and humiliation.
“All their actions and omissions were committed specifically to discriminate against plaintiff because he was an African-American male in a white neighborhood and in a brand new luxury car,” the lawsuit states.
Williams has been seeking employment in the legal field since being terminated from a previous job as a paralegal at a Coral Gables law firm.
His interview on May 16 was with Robert Half International, a national staffing firm, which has offices at the building.
As the dispute continued, Williams’ car was blocking the exit lane from the garage. He said the attendants began directing other customers to leave through the entrance lane, but they would not lift the gate for him to leave. The exchanges became heated, and people began to gather.
“I was in tears, covered in sweat, and pleading with them to let me leave, because I had an appointment to see my grandmother who was sick in the hospital that morning,” he says.
By this time, more people were gathering, and the managers of the Brickell Square facility had also been called to the scene. They began what Williams called “interrogating” him about his purpose for being there.
“The manager from Brickell Square asked me what was I doing in the building, and I told him I went to a job interview,” he said.
According to Williams, that manager contacted the Robert Half International firm, which confirmed he had in fact been in an interview with them. A secretary there, not knowing what was taking place down in the parking garage, asked them to also let Williams know that he had left his parking ticket in their offices.
Williams said that at this point, he was still in tears and was humiliated as a crowd of unknown numbers of people looked on. Some time later, he said, the police arrived.
“The police told them they had no right to hold me there, but they refused to arrest any of them,” Williams said.
According to the report from Miami police, Williams did inform them he had been kidnapped, and racially profiled, and wanted to press criminal charges.
The report also states that police told Williams he could have left, that only his vehicle was being held, and that the parking attendant only wanted his identification to reconcile any extra cash that may have been in his register as a result of the maximum fee being paid.
“Once we got his ticket from upstairs, we didn’t even charge him the full, lost ticket rate and we let him go, but he would not leave,” Alfaro said.
Williams denies that version of events, and said he is considering taking his complaint to the Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office to press criminal charges for false imprisonment.
During a recent interview with the South Florida Times, Williams pointed to the receipt he received, showing that in the end, he was charged $9 for one hour and 29 minutes of parking, even though most of that time was accumulated while he was not allowed to leave with his car.
“Its all racist. They have signs posted that explain what they are there for, and what they are not supposed to do,” Williams asserts. “I want my day in court, because this very well may have had an impact on why I didn’t get the job.”
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Derek S. Williams