A jury on Monday awarded $1 million to a Miami construction worker who was critically injured in a car crash caused by trigger-happy Sweetwater cops.
Federal jurors ruled that Sweetwater violated the civil rights of Juan Perez, 63, whose car was struck by a suspect fleeing police in West Miami-Dade. Perez suffered a traumatic brain injury, spent weeks in the hospital and now relies on his wife to care for him full time, said his lawyer, Carolina Corona.
“Obviously, he can’t work at his construction job any longer,” she said.
The verdict is another blow for the small West Miami-Dade city, beset by the arrests of public officials in recent years, many of them stemming from a twisted relationship with a tow company that worked in cahoots with cops to shake down motorists.
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That included former Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño, who served federal prison time for corruption.
In the car crash case, the chain of events started in January 2012 when Sweetwater police — near the city but outside of their jurisdiction — pulled over a man named Felipe Torrealba for driving erratically. He stopped briefly but drove off. Sweetwater cops fired 23 times at his car, hitting him in the right ear and causing his car to crash into Perez, who was driving to work.
Torrealba had two outstanding warrants, one for drugs, another for assault. At the time, Sweetwater police claimed that Torrealba was “armed and dangerous.”
But no gun or weapon was ever found. Torrealba — who is serving prison time for the earlier assault case and testified in a suit and shackles — told federal jurors that he was unarmed and fled only because he was afraid the Sweetwater cops would hurt him.
At the federal civil trial, lawyers Carolina Corona, Rick M. Corona and Nina Tarafa contended that Sweetwater police wrongfully pulled over the man. The reason: At the time, they were engaged in a long-running racket to illegally tow cars.One of the officers involved, Reny Garcia, was arrested in June on accusations that he was part of the rogue group of Sweetwater cops who stole from citizens. He is awaiting trial on charges of racketeering and organized scheme to defraud.