Lester Machado was pulled over by Hialeah police for a broken tail light. After first stopping, Machado abruptly drove off. A dramatic, high-speed police chase ensued.
Before long, Machado’s car plowed into a concrete Metrorail column. Shortly after, he was dead, not from the collision, but from police bullets — some of a staggering 128 shots fired at his car by six Hialeah police officers.
Machado’s family has now filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Hialeah and the officers involved in the chase and police shooting. The suit, filed in South Florida federal court this month, argues that the Oct. 1, 2017, car chase broke Hialeah police procedures and that one sergeant had even ordered the chase halted.
The suit also contends that Machado, 24, was unarmed and, once his car had crashed after being rammed by a Hialeah cruiser, not a threat when the police bullets flew.
“Machado was found dead on the passenger side of his vehicle’s back seat,” according to the lawsuit filed by Coral Gables lawyers Domingo Rodriguez and Roberto Pertiera. “It is apparent that after the crash, and the hail of gun fire leveled at him, Machado was seeking shelter and protection from the gunfire.”
The lawsuit was filed by Yolaisy Perez, Machado’s mother, and requests $10 million in damages for wrongful death and the violation of the man’s civil rights. A Hialeah police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office has already cleared the officers involved in Machado’s death of any criminal charges, primarily because of Florida’s “Fleeing Felon” law. The long-criticized law allows police officers to use deadly force against fleeing felons who might be a harm to the public.
Prosecutors said the shooting was justified under criminal law because Machado committed several felonies, including leading cops on a high-speed chase, and nearly hitting several officers on foot and in their cars, which constitutes aggravated battery.
“The officers had a lawful right to try and stop Lester Machado for his traffic offense and arrest him when he willfully fled and escalated his conduct to that which endangered the lives of the officers and citizens on the road,” the State Attorney’s Office wrote in its final memo last year.
The memo pointed out that prosecutors only look at criminal law and the decision plays no role in whether a civil suit is filed.
Getting a decision against police in a use-of-force case in Florida is challenging, even in civil court, which has looser legal standards than in the criminal division.
Police officers are often granted “qualified immunity,” which protects cops for conduct while on duty. In some cases in which a judge won’t give immunity because the facts are in dispute, civil trials haven’t fared well for plaintiffs.
Over the past five years, the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office has defended officers in federal civil trials for at least four police shootings, and won them all. Most recently, civil jurors cleared Miami-Dade Police Detective Miguel Carballosa for fatally shooting a suspicious armed neighbor who confronted the officer during an undercover stakeout.
Machado, who was a manager at a Hialeah AutoZone, did not have an extensive criminal history, but was facing a felony trial after an earlier arrest on charges of buying marijuana. Toxicology reports showed he had drugs in his system but court documents did not detail what they were.
The chain of events that led to his death started on Oct. 1, 2017, shortly before 4 a.m., as he drove his white Honda Accord south on East Eighth Avenue. Hialeah Officer Teannie Hernandez said his tail light was out, and he was weaving in and out of traffic. She pulled him over near 22nd Street. But moments after stopping, Machado backed up slightly, then zoomed off.
He did not hit her police cruiser, or another one that had pulled up alongside her. “He attempted to ram my vehicle,” Hernandez radioed back.
According to radio dispatches, a police sergeant radioed out to cancel the pursuit. Hialeah police, like most departments, have a policy of not pursuing cars for minor traffic infractions. “Do not chase the vehicle,” a dispatcher repeated.
But after the dispatchers noted he “tried to ram two police officers,” Lt. Antonio Luis reversed the sergeant and ordered his officers to “proceed.”
The chase was on. Machado sped into a Mobil gas station. A Hialeah police officer, Esteban Holland, pulled in as Machado was pulling out.
“He rammed my unit. He rammed my unit,” Holland radioed.
The station’s video surveillance, however, showed the front of Holland’s car grazed Machado’s side as he turned right. Prosecutors said they would not characterize it as ramming but said black marks on Machado’s Honda “were consistent with a sideswiping of the police vehicle.”
The high-speed pursuit continued, winding through East Hialeah. Next, police said, he hit the car of Officer Maria Benitez, who had stopped her cruiser in the street to force him to stop.
Machado backed up, hitting another Hialeah police cruiser, then drove around Benitez’s car, nearly hitting her and Hernandez, who were now on foot. “Both officers jumped out of the way to avoid getting hit,” prosecutors said.
It was at that point that one officer on the scene, Jose Abel, fired the first shots at Machado as he sped off. Abel fired through his own windshield. Investigators could not determine if his bullets struck Machado’s car.
Civilians nearby began hollering, while one recorded video on his cellphone. “Plomo! Plomo!” one yelled. Plomo is Spanish for lead, slang for bullets.
The chase came to an end when Machado’s car crashed into the Metrorail column on Northwest 79th Street near 35th Avenue.
According to the lawsuit, the video surveillance shows Lt. Luis rammed Machado’s Honda from behind, causing him to “lose control and crash.”
The surveillance shows the Hialeah cop cars quickly closed in and gunfire rang out almost immediately. A puff of dust, two seconds after the crash, showed one bullet hitting a wall across the street.
Lt. Luis radioed out that he was in the crossfire. “Everybody hold their fire. There’s no one moving in the car. Nobody else fire,” an officer radioed.
Machado’s body came to rest outside the open rear passenger door. He’d been hit seven times. One bullet, one of two fatal wounds, entered his temple.
Of the 128 rounds fired, his estate’s lawyers said, at least 80 hit the car.
“At that point, Machado’s vehicle was stopped, Machado was unarmed, and Machado presented no risk of harm to anyone,” the lawsuit said.