More than a year after a violent encounter with Miami-Dade police, a Little River man has filed a lawsuit in federal court claiming officers beat him and restrained his hands and feet for a minor offense — throwing bottles out of his car window.
The 11-count complaint by Ephraim Casado, filed last week against Miami-Dade police and officers William Baskins and Oliver Mayorga, stems from a chaotic traffic stop in March 2017 that was captured on the body cameras of six police officers. His allegation of false arrest, excessive force and civil rights abuse was first reported by the Miami New Times
"It's clear the cops beat him because they could," said Casado's attorney, Igor Hernandez, on Tuesday. "He gets out of the car with his hands up, no resistance. And the first thing that's done is he's grabbed and thrown on the hood of his car."
Police and Casado have markedly different descriptions of the encounter and the 18 separate video clips released by Miami-Dade prosecutors captured the arrest in off-and-on, often jerky fragments. The videos clearly show that as Casado first got out of his car with his hands up, an officer roughly grabbed him and slammed him onto the back of his car. But the sometimes unclear footage also shows Casado later wrestling with officers and resisting efforts to handcuff him as he repeatedly screams about his rights and abusive treatment.
Early Tuesday evening, Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez held a media conference to release all available body camera video and the documents related to the case. He said he did so out of concern that initial media reports could cause concern in the community and didn't adequately cover the officers' version of events. He said when he received the initial report, he asked that the case be reviewed for a second time by both internal affairs and the state attorney.
"I do not believe there was excessive force," the director said.
Casado, 20 at the time, was eventually charged with battery and resisting an officer with violence, marijuana possession and criminal mischief. But eight months later, after he served four months of house arrest, the charges were dropped after Assistant State Attorney Natalie Pueschel determined the officers were being "less than truthful" about what took place.
But the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, criticized in the past for not pursuing criminal charges against officers accused of excessive or deadly force, didn't press a case against the officers.
Her office would not comment on Casado's case or lawsuit but released the results of a Miami-Dade police Internal Affairs investigation into the officers' actions launched after the criminal case was closed. Its opinion differed with Pueschel's findings, saying that the officers had adhered to department policies. The officers were never suspended or disciplined.
Pueschel, who left the State Attorney's Office for private practice, did not respond to requests for an interview Tuesday.
Police say they first pulled over Casado's Hyundai after he almost hit them head-on after he reached down to the floorboard and tossed a bottle out the driver's side window. The arrest, outside his home on Northwest 91st Street, spiraled into a struggle.
At one point, Casado's dog even broke free from behind a gate and approached the tussle. But rather than attacking anybody, the big dog appeared to keep joyfully leaping onto officers and his owner, even as they wrestled on the ground.
According to Casado's arrest report, at about 1:30 p.m. on March 27, 2017, officers from an elite Miami-Dade robbery unit were driving on Northwest 20th Avenue near 90th Street. They reported seeing Casado toss several bottles out his window. The report said Casado swerved directly into the oncoming traffic and the detectives made a U-turn and tried to pull him over. They followed him until he got to the front of his home at 2000 NW 91st St.
"The defendant quickly opened the door and concealed his hands which caused Det. Baskins to order him out of the vehicle at gunpoint," Baskins wrote.
The videos show it took several minutes to get Casado into custody after he wrestled and tensed up to avoid being handcuffed, then fell to the ground and struggled with an officer on the street.
One 17-second video of the encounter from Mayorga's body camera shows Baskins, with his weapon drawn and held in his right hand, approach Casado, who has his hands up in the air after the door is open. Then Baskins grabs Casado by the left arm and whips him around and onto the back of the Hyundai.
After that, however, video of the interaction between the two turns murky. A second video clip also from Mayorga shows the officer struggling to handcuff Casado, who tenses and and tries to get away. The two roll onto the street as a dog jumps up on them. At one point Casado is on top of the officer before Baskins finally gains control and handcuffs Casado.
The officers claimed in their case notes that Casado ordered his dog to "attack, attack, bite them." That wasn't clear in any of the videos.
Over the next few minutes Casado talks with Sgt. Kelvin Scott, who is in charge of the scene. Cuffed and seated on the ground, Casado repeatedly says he's injured and Scott tells him Fire Rescue is on the way. Neighbors come by and tell a clearly agitated Casado to just relax. Then, Casado accuses an officer of punching him in the face. The cop's response: "F---ing right I did."
Perez defended the officers' response.
"When there's a certain amount of resistance, officers are allowed to punch people,'' he said.
Later on, Casado is placed in the back of a patrol vehicle, video shows, and he kicks open the back door and escapes, and once again police struggle to get him under control. Officers then tie up Casado's legs before hauling him again into a car and putting him prone across the back seat.
After Casado's arrest, the prosecution fell to Pueschel. On Aug. 9, 2017, a day after reviewing the video, she chose to dismiss the case. In her closeout memo, Pueschel says Casado exited the vehicle slowly with his hands raised. "The officers had the defendant at gunpoint before he ever exited the car," she wrote. Pueschel wrote that the arrest affidavit didn't seem to jibe with the video she watched.
"It is my belief that these officers were less than truthful about the actual events that occurred during this incident," she wrote. "Based upon this, the state dismissed the case on August 9, 2017."
Pueschel's findings prompted an internal affairs investigation into Baskins and Mayorga. Investigator Sgt. Jay Gore found there were gaps in some of the body camera footage and that the video did not show the initial stop. It also says that although the officer admitted punching Casado, Pueschel didn't take into account the reason why, which was written in the arrest affidavit.
"Based on the aforementioned information, no violations of Miami-Dade police department policies and procedures were identified," Gore wrote.