Free parking? Off-duty officer found avoiding meters in tow zone

By Ross Palombo, Reporter, rpalombo@Local10.com
Published On: Feb 10 2014 11:15:00 PM EST
Updated On: Feb 11 2014 03:58:51 PM EST

A Coral Gables officer was caught parking in a tow zone in Miami which he says he did to avoid taking up a metered spot.

MIAMI -

A Coral Gables officer was caught parking in a tow zone in Miami which he says he did to avoid taking up a metered spot.

"There's a lot of traffic around here, a lot of places you want to go, but you can't find parking," said driver Maria Guaqueta.

In the middle of the parking congestion and confusion, far from the meter lights, the headlights and the tailights, one vehicle has long been in the spotlight.

"I see the car there all the time," said driver Mike Valdes.

"I notice it," said driver Maybel Gomez. "Every day I would notice (it)."

However, it was the man who may have noticed it was parked illegally sitting behind a no parking sign in a tow zone near a crosswalk.

"I thought it was wrong," said Robert, especially wrong because it was a Coral Gables police car on Coral Way and 34th, not even in this jurisdiction.

"It was a city of Coral Gables, and we live here in the city of Miami," said Robert.

Local 10 found the same SUV in the same spot one night, the next morning, during the mid-morning, on another night four days later and the following morning.

On the seventh day, Local 10 Investigator Ross Palombo found the driver, Officer Mike Baluja of the Coral Gables Police Department.

"You see this? (It) says this is a no parking zone here," Palombo told Baluja.

"I do, and the thing is I try not to take up a metered spot," Baluja said.

"Yeah, but aren't you breaking the law by parking here?" asked Palombo.

"Uh, perhaps. It could be," said Baluja.

"Perhaps? You're an officer, aren't you?" Palombo asked Baluja.

"Yes," Baluja said.

Baluja has been an officer with the Coral Gables Police Department for nearly 10 years and has a spotless record.

"Well, why are you doing it?" Palombo asked Baluja.

"I was just doing it to not take up a metered spot," Baluja said.

By his own admission, Baluja was not paying out the $1.50 per hour that everyone else is supposed to pay.

"It's an emergency vehicle," Baluja replied when asked if it was OK.

"For the city of Coral Gables, but you're in Miami right now," Palombo said.

"Correct," said Baluja.

"So, are you above the law?" asked Palombo.

"No, I'm not, I'm not saying that," said Baluja.

The city of Miami has said, though, that Baluja has been above a single ticket or tow. Even though Local 10 saw several parking patrols out there, they have never cited Baluja, never impounded his SUV and they may have had plenty of opportunity.

"Why have you been doing this for months, even years?" asked Palombo.

"Well," said Baluja. "Not for years, no sir."

"Oh, it's definitely been going on for a few years," said Robert. "We noticed this probably about three to four years ago."

Local 10 also noticed on Google Maps from the "street view" of this intersection what did appear to be the same unit captured years ago.

"We have a picture showing you doing this all the way back from March 2011," said Palombo.

"OK, well, I'm just going to move my vehicle then," said Baluja.

"What do you have to say to the people of Coral Gables who trust that you're upholding the law?" asked Palombo.

"That I'm not taking up a metered spot," said Baluja.

The police chief himself would only say "officers are required to follow all applicable parking laws and regulations," and "with respect to this officer, the city has received no complaints."

At this very intersection since Baluja was last seen, Local 10 hasn't seen him doing it again there.

"You feel you should be disciplined for this?" asked Palombo.

"I don't know, sir," said Baluja.

Coral Gables said it hasn't investigated this because it hasn't had any complaints, but Local 10 has learned that a Coral Gables officer herself knew about the parking and never did anything about it.

The city also said it doesn't even know how long Baluja has even had the SUV and can't verify if he had it back in 2011. When asked how the city doesn't know where its own vehicles have been, the city would only say it doesn't have the records. The police chief, city manager and mayor would not speak about this on camera.

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