A South Miami police officer won’t face criminal charges for shooting and wounding an unarmed former college football player during a traffic stop at a gas station in November.
The reason, Miami-Dade prosecutors concluded: Michael Gavins turned his back to the officer while stuffing marijuana down his pants, repeatedly refusing to put his hands up.
“A reasonable officer could believe that Mr. Gavins was about to retrieve some firearm or weapon from his person,” according to a 12-page final report released Wednesday.
The State Attorney’s Office ruled that South Miami Officer Aryo Rezaie was “legally justified” in shooting Gavins, who initially admitted to detectives that he was trying to hide the weed in his pants, but later changed his story to say his hands were in the air when he was shot.
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Gavins’ attorney, Paul Layne, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The investigation’s close comes as recent police shootings of black men have sparked racial tensions, leading to heated political rhetoric, protests of police tactics and two massacres of cops in Texas and Louisiana.
In Florida, the law affords police officers — and citizens too, thanks to the Stand Your Ground law — wide leeway to use deadly force in self-defense. Cops have rarely been charged for on-duty police shootings, although officers in Broward and Palm Beach have been charged recently in high-profile killings.
In Miami-Dade, the last officer to be charged was William Lozano, who shot and killed a motorcyclist in Overtown, sparking days of racially charged riots in 1989. He was ultimately acquitted of manslaughter at trial.
At the time Gavins was wounded, he was the fifth person shot by officers in South Florida over the course of one weekend.
Gavins, 37, played football and basketball at South Miami High School in the 1990s before earning a scholarship to the University of Missouri, then transferring to Missouri State. He was working as a security guard at the time he was shot.
On the evening of Nov. 15, he was pulled over for speeding by Rezaie, who was accompanied by rookie officer Marvin Pierre. Gavins stopped his Mitsubishi at a Shell gas station at 1492 South Dixie Hwy.
As Rezaie was running Gavins’ drivers license through a database, Pierre noticed the motorist rummaging through his glove compartment and saw a “large plastic bag containing several smaller baggies of suspect marijuana,” the report said.
According to the report, the officers ordered Gavins out of the car and he hid the bag in some papers in his hand. As Pierre searched for the marijuana in the car, Gavins briefly put his hands on top of the hood before walking away and turning his back to Rezaie, the report said.
Gavins reached his hands into his pants, while Rezaie began loudly demanding Gavins put his hands in the air, prosecutors said. Pierre himself said he could not see Gavins’ hands when his partner shot at the man.
The shot pierced Gavins’ back shoulder. He crumpled to the ground, and was soon rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital. There, with a stenographer transcribing the interview, Gavins said that he had marijuana in the glove compartment that did not belong to him and that he “tried to stuff the marijuana into the front of his pants” when he was shot.
“There is no requirement, either in the statute or case law, that provide that an officer must wait to see a weapon or wait to be shot before defending himself in the course of making an arrest,” prosecutors said in the report.
But in January, Gavins and his attorney met with detectives and prosecutors. He then told them that “he had his hands in the air during the entire duration of the traffic stop and was shot while his hands were in the air.”
He also denied ever having marijuana during the traffic stop. Gavins was initially charged with a felony charge of possession of marijuana with intent to sell. The charge was later busted down to a misdemeanor.
Prosecutors were forced to drop the charge because, on the day of trial, South Miami police forgot to bring the key evidence, the bag of marijuana, and a judge declined to postpone the case.
Rezaie refused to give a statement to detectives. A local lawyer, John Schulte, witnessed the traffic stop as he was in his car nearby. He corroborated that Gavins had his hands on the hood at one point, but admitted he looked away to help his wife find her phone and did not see the moments before the shooting. Video cameras at the station did not capture the shooting either.