Approaching 10:30 on a slow Wednesday night for Monroe County sheriff's deputies in the middle of Marathon, Deputy Megan Faison shines her headlights across Overseas Highway at 47th Street.
A tractor-trailer passes, headed toward Key West, followed seconds later by a silver 2002 Acura.
She pulls the car over.
She would later say it was because it was less than 4.5 car lengths behind the truck when it passed her and that both its tag lights were out.
But neither allegation was true, the NBC6 Investigators found after a review of her dashboard and body worn camera videos.
Video analysis by NBC6 Investigators and a traffic forensic expert reveals the car was nearly 10 lengths behind the truck when it passed her – more than twice the distance she claimed was the minimum legal distance.
And the car's tag light was clearly on – a fact confirmed by her own video. She would later admit as much after the driver pointed a shining bulb out to her.
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office will not say whether or not the deputy conducted an illegal stop, but the attorney for a passenger in that car, whose life in the United States was transformed after deputies summoned Border Patrol, said he may challenge the arrest of the undocumented immigrant based on evidence it was the fruit of an illegal traffic stop on July 17.
It came just days after plans by federal immigration authorities to round up 2,000 undocumented people fizzled, despite Trump administration vows to detain as many undocumented immigrants as possible.
This is not just the story of a then-22-year-old rookie deputy using unsupported allegations to justify what appears to be an illegal traffic stop of a car occupied by three Hispanic men and a white non-Hispanic woman; it's also the story of how that passenger in the Acura -- a 29-year-old professional boxer from Mexico named Abel Aparicio -- his wife and his three children had their lives turned upside down because of what happened next.
FROM TRAFFIC STOP TO IMMIGRATION BUST
What began as a traffic stop (for violations evidence shows did not exist as alleged) morphed into a desire to obtain consent to search for drugs (that the deputy said she did not think she could smell) and culminated in what looks like a full-blown immigration investigation conducted by a local sheriff's deputy whose agency says it does not conduct immigration enforcement.
Ensnared in it all, the undocumented immigrant Aparicio, who has lived in the United States since he was a teenager, is married to a US citizen and has no disqualifying criminal record that would support his deportation, his lawyer Alex Solomiany would tell an immigration judge nine days later, when he successfully argued Aparicio be released on bond.
"They went beyond what this traffic stop should have been," Solomiany told the NBC6 Investigators. "This traffic stop became an immigration stop without the Border Patrol even getting there."
What the attorney did not know – until NBC6 showed him video of the July 17 incident – is evidence existed that would persuade him the traffic stop was illegal.
"Oh, definitely," he said after seeing the video and being asked if it were an illegal stop. "There's a lot of things that went wrong with that traffic stop."
Yet Aparicio still faces possible deportation after spending nine days in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center on Krome Avenue.
That's because – rather than "let it go," as Faison said she was prepared to do 15 minutes into the stop -- another Monroe County deputy who backed up Faison interrogated Aparicio about his immigration status and then summoned Border Patrol to the traffic stop.
The sheriff's office said it does not conduct federal immigration law enforcement under an agreement with the feds and that it does not engage in joint operations with federal authorities to identify undocumented people.
They say Deputy Faison and her backup, Deputy Garrett Bragg, were simply on routine patrol.
LEADER OF THE SHERIFF'S PACK
But is it routine for their deputies to request passengers in cars show their papers?
The sheriff's office would not answer that question, one of more than two dozen posed by the NBC6 Investigators, including whether the traffic stop was illegal, whether the deputies' actions were based on racial profiling and why deputies sought to confirm the identities of passengers in a car being stopped ostensibly for minor traffic violations.
But when it comes to stopping Hispanics in cars and then summoning Border Patrol, Deputy Faison is the leader of the sheriff's pack.
A review of five months of Monroe County Sheriff's Office call histories reveals 21 traffic stops where Border Patrol was summoned to verify identities or documentation that can reveal immigration status; Faison was the primary deputy on four of those stops.
And none of the 13 deputies who initiated those stops has stopped even half the number of Hispanic drivers (four) or Hispanic passengers (seven) that Faison did. She initiated 30 percent of the all the traffic stops, and her stops involved 30 percent of the drivers and passengers referred to Border Patrol by the agency; but when it came to Hispanics, the 11 she intercepted produced 46 percent of the Hispanic leads referred to Border Patrol.
Based on a review of the Border Patrol-involved incidents, Faison and other deputies ask people with foreign-sounding names to show their papers or otherwise identify themselves -- even when the driver has a valid license and there's no record the deputy suspects anyone in the car has or is about to commit a crime.
If what Faison says on video during the Aparicio stop is any indication, she can have a hard time articulating why her suspicions exist – at least as it relates to the three Hispanic men and the non-Hispanic white woman whose Keys vacation she interrupted on July 17, stopping them for more than 35 minutes without writing so much as a traffic ticket.
'I DON'T KNOW THAT I CAN SMELL IT'
"Hello, how's it going," Faison asked seemingly cheerfully as she approached the driver, who was already producing his valid Georgia license to hand her.
"The reason I pulled you over is both of your tag lights are out and you were also following too closely to the semi," she said.
"Oh, I'm sorry," the driver said, not knowing video evidence would show the car had only one tag light and it was on, and that he was not following too closely when Faison first started following them, as she claimed.
But by the time Faison gathered the names and dates of birth of the four occupants – three of them with Hispanic surnames – she was already suspicious and planning to ask the occupants to let her search the car.
The sheriff’s office will not say, and will not make Faison or Bragg available to answer our questions about their actions that night. Nor would Sheriff Rick Ramsay.
But, as her body cam rolled six minutes into the stop, Faison is on her cellphone calling a law enforcement colleague the sheriff's office will not identify:
"What's up?" he answers.
"Are you on a call?"
"I'm on a traffic stop. What do you need?" he asks.
"I was going to see if I could get consent. I think there might be something in the car, but I don't know that I can smell it. Ok. Never mind. Bye."
What was it she did not know that she could smell?
The sheriff's office would not answer that question nor would they say if Faison was calling Bragg, a K9 officer, Border Patrol or anyone else.
Later she would tell Bragg she suspected marijuana was in the car, but she never says on tape why she suspected that. Much of what she knew at the time was this: there were Hispanic men from Georgia in a car with one non-Hispanic white woman.
And she was going to seek their consent to search the vehicle and perhaps them – again, the sheriff would not say which one or both – before she even confirmed the identities of the three whose driver's licenses or name and date of birth produced a record showing they were not wanted for anything.
But not Aparicio.
She misheard Aparicio spell his name, and the sheriff's teletype operator could find no record under that misspelled name – Abaricio – or, later, the correct name, which he again provided when he confirmed she spelled it wrong.
The sheriff's office will not say why deputies were asking for names and dates of birth of passengers in a car that was supposedly being stopped for having no tag light and following too closely.
Solomiany, the immigration attorney, said while drivers must have a license, passengers not suspected of crimes do not have to present IDs or volunteer names and date of birth.
"He did have the right to remain silent, he didn't have to get out of the car to begin with and he didn't have to tell him where he was born and he didn't have to tell him his name," Solomiany said. "He could say, 'I'm not answering questions. Am I under arrest and if I'm not under arrest, am I free to leave?'"
But it's a request Faison and other Monroe County deputies do make of passengers, according to dispatch records of those 21 stops since March 1 that resulted in Border Patrol being called to identify people.
The sheriff would not say whether that was standard procedure for all stops, or just those involving occupants who are Hispanic or appear to be from foreign countries.
But had Aparicio resisted giving information or asked to leave, remember that smell Faison didn't know that she could smell?
If she or any deputy suddenly decided they recognized that smell as marijuana, they could then detain and seek to identify everyone as they search the vehicle and everything and everyone in it.
"If something smells (like illegal contraband) it would have given her probable cause to search the vehicle," Solomiany said. "She obviously felt she did not have probable cause."
But Aparicio, two weeks after winning his first title belt, vacationing in the Keys with his trainer and friends from his Atlanta gym – was not giving anyone trouble, not asserting his constitutional rights to remain silent or not engage in an interrogation about his identity or immigration status.
He was just trying to get across the Seven Mile Bridge and back to their Airbnb rental in Big Pine Key after a day kayaking followed by a night at a Marathon marina restaurant.
Whatever Faison suspected, things escalated when Deputy Bragg arrived on scene.
REASONS FOR THE STOP CRUMBLE
Fourteen minutes into the stop, Faison tells her newly-arrived back-up, Bragg, "I think there’s something in the car."
The driver had admitted he had one drink earlier, but Faison said she did not think he was impaired and, she told Bragg, she did not think he was "above" – meaning, apparently, above the legal limit for drinking and driving.
Still unable to confirm Aparicio's identity through the sheriff's communication center – he did not have a driver’s license or ID card -- she admits to Bragg: "I don't really have to identify him, so I'm just going to let it go," she says.
But one or both did not let it go.
Seconds later, both approach the car.
After Faison asks the driver to get out so she could show him both tag lights were out, Bragg shines a flashlight at Aparicio in the backseat and asks him to get out too.
At the back of the car, the driver is surprised to see there was only one tag light and it was on.
The 2002 Acura RSX sedan has only one tag light, the owner tells NBC 6 Investigators, sending a photo of the tag light and frame assembly that appears to confirm that.
And sheriff's video shows that light is on, both when it was being followed by Deputy Faison and after it came to a stop.
Florida law says the light must make the tag "clearly legible from a distance of 50 feet." But Faison's own dash cam video, compared to Google Map distance measurements, shows her cruiser was about 130 feet to 140 feet away from the tag when she turned off her headlights for one second, apparently to see if the tag was legible – and it appeared to be illuminated from even that distance.
She turned on her siren and conducted the stop seconds later, still about 85 feet away from the illuminated tag, according to the Google Maps distances.
As it became clear – 15 minutes into the stop -- the tag light was indeed on, Faison announced a new reason to justify that portion of the traffic stop.
"So it looks like you got one barely in the middle maybe," she says, contradicting her earlier allegation that there were two tag lights and both were out. "But when I'm behind you I can't see it, so if you just want to replace that other bulb."
But the driver says he sees a spot for only one bulb. Still, not wanting to upset law enforcement, he quickly adds compliantly, "I mean I'll change it out."
"It may just be dying then," Faison said.
So a stop that began with two tag bulbs allegedly out transforms into one where one bulb "may just be dying."
That, Solomiany said, is an illegal traffic stop.
But remember, the deputy had a fallback reason for the stop: the claim the car was following a tractor-trailer too closely when they passed her stationary position.
Faison advises the driver, "You want to have one car length for every 10 miles per hour… so just, um, four and a half car lengths … you shoulda had about probably four and a half car lengths" between the Acura's front bumper and the end of the tractor-trailer just ahead when they passed her. The speed limit was 45.
But not to worry, Faison told him – as her backup Bragg is seen in the background asking Aparicio to step out the car – "I'm not going to give you a ticket or anything."
If she had given him a ticket, the NBC6 Investigators found, he could have obtained an expert opinion that Deputy Faison was either lying or mistaken when she claimed the Acura was within four and a half car lengths of the semi as they drove past her.
Adriana Gomez, an expert in accident reconstruction with Miami-based Transport Analysis Professionals, analyzed the dashcam video and confirmed what the NBC6 Investigators calculated: there were likely nearly 10 car lengths between the Acura and the semi when it passed Faison's location – more than twice the distance she claims would have justified the traffic stop.
Florida statutes don't give a hard and fast rule on the legal distance – the one-length-per-10-mph advice Faison gave is just a rule of thumb. The law states a driver "shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon, and the condition of, the highway."
It was a clear, dry, brightly moonlit night on Overseas Highway on July 17.
But it was about to become a gloomy one for Abel Aparicio.
DEPUTY TURNED IMMIGRATION INVESTIGATOR
As Faison finishes admonishing the driver about driving too closely – even though he was actually driving at twice the distance she claimed -- Bragg starts peppering Aparicio with questions about whether he belongs in the United States of America.
"You never got an ID card or driver's license?"
"No, 'cause I don't know how to drive," Aparicio answers.
"How old are you?"
"So you're 29 years old and you have no ID?"
Aparicio says he has a Mexican consular ID, which he gives Bragg, who continues the interrogation.
"Do you have a social security number?"
Bragg asks about his passport and how long ago Aparicio came from Mexico and then, this:
"So you're here legally, with everything?"
"Yeah, yeah," Aparicio said, lying.
"Okay, but you don't have ID of any sort? Nothing?" Bragg asks.
Then, before stepping away, he orders Aparicio to "hang tight for a second."
Out of Aparicio's earshot, he uses his radio to request Border Patrol come to the scene for a documentation verification.
It is now 18 minutes into a stop that Aparicio's attorney says should never have happened.
A FAMILIAR PROFILE
"He was being interrogated," attorney Solomiany said. "He was being asked technically about his immigration status because they wanted to see an ID" – an ID Aparicio did not have to show.
"I think when the sheriff said, 'Can you get out of the car?' he could say. 'I don't have to get out of the car. Am I being charged with something?'" Solomiany said.
But, not knowing what kind of confrontation that lawful resistance might trigger, Aparicio continued to be respectful and compliant.
"It appears they were trying to find out what this person's immigration status was and if we determine he didn't have status, let's get the Border Patrol involved," Solomiany said.
And for at least the 21st time since March 1, a Monroe County Sheriff's deputy did just that – calling Border Patrol to investigate the documentation of a suspected immigrant – in this case, a passenger in a car that had been stopped despite, it appears from the evidence, its driver having violated no law.
It is a familiar profile: the Monroe County sheriff requesting Border Patrol to identify occupants of cars with Hispanic or other foreign names, whether or not the driver has a valid license.
But is it racial profiling? The sheriff's office will not say.
Solomiany notes the car's front passenger side window was down and Spanish music was playing as it traveled down Overseas Highway. He noted the front seat passenger -- on the side illuminated most by Faison's cruiser's headlights at the start of the encounter – was wearing a ball cap backwards and a tank top and appeared Hispanic.
Aparicio's wife, Shelby Carter, told NBC 6 what she thinks happened.
"I honestly think it was racial profiling," she said. "I think they saw a bunch of brown guys driving down the street listening to music and talking and having fun and I think they saw that. That's why they pulled them over."
The sheriff's office would not answer questions about whether it is violating civil rights of immigrants, as it fights an earlier civil rights lawsuit that claims it illegally detained an American citizen for ICE, despite the inmate's repeated pleas and offers of proof that he was born in Philadelphia – proof ICE would eventually accept. The sheriff's office, in its defense, said in court papers it is not responsible because it was just carrying out the orders of a federal agency.
Nor would the sheriff's office answer whether Faison heard Spanish music or could see the passenger's appearance when the car passed by her and whether she was suspicious Hispanics might be in the car.
But we do know once she saw there were Hispanics, her suspicions – seemingly unfounded -- turned repeatedly to marijuana.
PLAN B: DRUGS SHE COULD NOT SMELL 'ENOUGH'
As they wait for Border Patrol to arrive Bragg and Faison again talk about drugs.
Bragg shows Faison Aparicio’s Mexico consular ID and she once again raises her apparently unfounded suspicion that marijuana could be in the car.
She asks Bragg if he has a test kit.
He does not.
"I think there might be some shake in the back," she said, referring to marijuana residue. "But I can't smell it enough to ask 'em."
So the smell that she previously didn't think she knew existed was now one she "can't smell enough" to ask to search the car.
Finally, she just asked the driver straight out:
"Anything in the car I need to know about?"
"No? Any marijuana in the car?"
"Not at all? Okay. So, nothing at all?" she replied.
SAY HELLO TO THE DEPUTY'S 'FRIENDS'
At this point – 20 minutes into the stop -- Faison and Bragg are stalling, making small talk while they wait for the arrival of what Bragg would tell Aparicio were the deputy's "friends."
"Just give us a couple minutes to verify," Bragg assures Aparicio, "because we can't run you out of Mexico," meaning the agency can't verify his identity based on a Mexican consulate ID, "but our friends can. So they're just going to come over here. They're literally right there, so they'll be here in a second."
The Border Patrol's Marathon office is located just 450 feet north of the traffic stop on the gulf side of Overseas Highway.
Three minutes later as Border Patrol arrives, Aparicio closely examines the lighted tag on the Acura.
Bragg briefs the Border Patrol agent, saying, "He's been here 10 years, but he doesn't have an ID or driver's license … I just want to make sure we confirm who he is."
As the agent approaches Aparicio, he crosses through the beams of Faison's cruiser's headlights, blocking them momentarily from the Acura's license tag.
The tag remains clearly visible with the tag light on.
Thirty minutes into the stop – which the sheriff’s office declines to categorize as legal or illegal -- Aparicio is taken into custody by Border Patrol.
He walks over to the car and says goodbye to his friends, who are going to have to tell his wife he is being taken to ICE detention. The driver and Aparicio embrace one last time before he is led off to a Border Patrol vehicle.
With Aparicio’s remaining friends unhappy the apparently illegal traffic stop ended with a father of three and promising boxer from their gym being taken away by Border Patrol, Faison turns to her backup.
"So," she says to Bragg. "I don’t think he’s going to consent to search now."
After his release from Krome on $5,000 bond on July 26, Aparicio is back with his American-born wife and children in Atlanta.
He has hired a new lawyer and his immigration case has been transferred to Atlanta, where he is hoping his more than 10 years in America without committing a disqualifying crime, his marriage to an American wife, the presence of his three children, his establishing a professional career as a boxer and the extreme hardship his deportation would cause his family can persuade the court to allow him to stay in the United States. His new lawyer said he would file a motion to suppress Aparicio’s arrest, if he can document the stop was illegal.
Just the nine-day detention in Krome was an ordeal, said Solomiany, his now-former lawyer. "Obviously very disruptive, especially for an individual like him, that’s training” as a professional boxer. “Now he’s going to have to go to court. He’s going to have to fight for his right to remain in the United States.”
Asked whether Aparicio has a right to remain here, since he crossed illegally into the country, Solomiany replied: "Well he shouldn't have entered illegally. Nobody should break the law. But once you're here, you have certain rights."
Friends of Abel Aparicio have created a GoFundMe page to assist in his legal defense.
The NBC6 Investigators asked the Monroe County Sheriff's Office two weeks ago to answer questions about its handling of this traffic stop and whether it authorizes, supports or encourages deputies to interrogate vehicle passengers who appear to be foreign about whether they are aliens and what right they have to be in or to remain in the United States. The questions focused on passengers -- not drivers, suspects or victims of a crime -- in vehicles not suspected of involvement in any crime other than being stopped for purported traffic infractions. The inquiry excluded anyone encountered who exhibits any behaviors that could trigger an "officer safety" pat-down or what is called a Terry stop, where police can briefly detain and search an individual who they have "reasonable suspicion" has committed or is about to commit a crime.
We sought to give the agency every opportunity to respond to or correct any of what the questions below assume as facts so that there is no misunderstanding about what we are basing this reporting on. If the agency saw anything in the questions or other correspondence that it believed is being misinterpreted, misunderstood or otherwise not based on accurate information, we asked the agency to let NBC6 know as soon as possible.
The agency has made no such notification and has repeatedly refused to answer the questions, saying this was their full statement:
"Deputies Megan Faison and Garett Bragg were on routine road patrol the night in question. Neither Deputy was patrolling as part of any special assignment. The Monroe County Sheriff's Office was not and does not engage in joint operations with federal authorities for the purpose of identifying undocumented people."
Here are some of the questions the Monroe County sheriff has declined to answer:
1) Why did Deputy Faison repeatedly say both tail lights were out, when the video clearly shows at least one was on – something we could see when she turned off her headlights while following the vehicle from a distance of greater than 50 feet before stopping it?
2) Notwithstanding her subjective judgment that the vehicle was following too closely, was this an illegal stop as it relates ONLY to her claim the tag lights were out, when in fact the plate was illuminated by at least one tag light and appeared legible from 50 feet?
3) Did she have radar or other device measuring the speed of the vehicle when it passed by her location before she pulled into traffic to conduct the stop, and if so, what was the speed?
4) On what did she base her opinion that the vehicle was following another in what was not a reasonable and prudent distance based on traffic and environmental conditions (i.e., a dry, clear, unbusy roadway)?
5) Could she hear Hispanic genre music playing when the car passed by her stationary location with its window down?
6) Did she suspect any occupant – including the front seat passenger wearing a backwards ball cap and tank top illuminated by her headlights -- was Hispanic in appearance before pulling the car over?
7) Had she been informed by anyone that a group of Hispanic or what they may have perceived as otherwise suspicious people had been at a restaurant or bar in Monroe County prior to the stop and, if so, did that information include a description of their vehicle?
8) Why and under what authority did Deputy Bragg interrogate Aparicio about him being an alien and his right to remain in the United States? (I know you’ve declined to answer what policies or statutes you believe authorize that in a general sense, but we now have evidence he did interrogate Aparicio about his status and right to remain in the United States and, after that, he summoned Border Patrol.) Specifically, he inquired about:
• his lack of a driver's license or ID card
• what state he had an ID card in
• him presenting his Mexican ID
• his social security number
• whether he had a passport on him, as the deputy said he was supposed to
• how long he had been in the United States
• whether he was here legally?
9) Does your agency have any agreement with the federal government that authorizes your deputies to conduct immigration investigations? (I know you said you do not have a 287(g) agreement, but there are others that could confer that authority on your agency and I want to make sure I am not missing anything.)
10) Why were passengers asked to present ID?
11) Was there any other reason the car was pulled over?
12) Did the vehicle or anyone in it match the description of any suspect vehicle or person known to Deputy Faison when she made the stop or anytime thereafter?
13) Is it your policy or practice to establish identities and run names and DOBs for non-Hispanic passengers in vehicles ostensibly pulled over ONLY for no tag light and following too closely?
14) Who did Deputy Faison call on her cell at approximately 2231 HRS and tell "I think there might be something in the car, but I don’t know I can smell it." A K9 officer? Deputy Bragg?
15) What did she not know she could smell?
16) In that she didn't know she could smell something, what was it about the car or its occupants that led her to suspect there "might be something in the car" and, therefore, "was going to see if I could get consent?"
17) Did she mean consent to search the vehicle, the persons inside or both?
18) For what reason or at whose request did Deputy Bragg arrive on scene?
19) At approximately 2237 HRS Deputy Faison tells Deputy Bragg: "I think there’s something in the car," something Faison later identifies she suspected was marijuana or "shake" -- despite her not seeing any or knowing she smelled it. Why, then, did your agency further detain the vehicle and occupants in hopes of getting consent to search a car that – notwithstanding Deputy Faison’s thoughts– you had no reason to believe contained marijuana? Was it because Hispanics were in the car?
20) When Deputy Faison tells Deputy Bragg "I don't really have to identify (the rear passenger), so I'm just going to let it go," was she saying she doesn’t really have to identify Aparicio and was going to let him go?
21) If not, what did she mean in saying "I'm just going to let it go"?
22) Why did your agency then detain and interrogate him further (at this point, the car had been stopped and the occupants detained for 14 minutes)?
23) Why did Deputy Bragg summon Border Patrol immediately after that interrogation of Aparicio about whether he the right to be in or remain the United States?
24) Has either been trained to conduct immigration law enforcement functions?
25) At 2242 HRS Deputy Faison, upon realizing she could not “run him out of Mexico” based on the Mexican ID Deputy Bragg had just obtained -- tells Deputy Bragg she was "not gonna …" and then Bragg interrupts, saying, "Let me see if they’re going to come over here," referring to Border Patrol. Faison then replies, "Oh, you already called them?” When Deputy Bragg said she was "not gonna," was she about to say not going to call Border Patrol? If not, what was she "not gonna" do?
This story is from our sister station, NBC Miami. Click here for more investigative stories from NBC stations across the county.