When police are accused of misconduct, it can cost them credibility and it can also cost taxpayers money, once lawsuits start flying. But NBC 6 Investigators found it’s not easy for those who accused police to prove their case.
Courts and legislatures have made it hard for those who claim police violated their civil rights. Police say, for good reason, arguing their split-second decisions should not be second-guessed in court.
But those who sue police say the deck is stacked too much against them.
Francois Alexandre says he’s been waiting to get justice for seven years after he claims multiple Miami Police officers battered him outside his apartment in Downtown Miami.
“I was beaten here by close to nine police officers. All this is over a Heat game,” he said, referring to the 2013 NBA championship in Miami.
Photos provided by Alexandre show his face, lips and eye socket bruised.
“This right here changed my life forever. I haven’t been the same ever since,” Alexandre told us while pointing to the corner where the incident happened.
Surveillance and cellphone video show Alexandre following officers’ orders to get on the sidewalk. “I’m getting back,” he can be heard saying.
With his phone, he recorded then Sergeant Javier Ortiz, who can be seen seconds later grabbing him on a surveillance video.
Then, Ortiz and five other Miami cops take him down in the alcove of the building where he lived at the time, smashing his eye socket, he says.
“Before I even hit the ground, I was already being punched,” Alexandre said. “If it wasn’t for that camera there, then I wouldn’t be sitting here with you guys. I think I probably would’ve been in jail.”
The Miami-Dade State Attorney dropped charges of inciting a riot and resisting without violence a month later.
Then, Alexandre says he sought justice with attorney Leonard Fenn. But seven years later, he’s still waiting.
“It’s easy to sue but it’s hard to win,” Fenn told us when asked how difficult it is to sue a police department for violation of civil rights.
The suit alleged unlawful arrest, excessive force and battery against the city, Ortiz and Miami Police officers Josue Herrera and Magdiel Perez.
Fenn says Ortiz was the instigator adding he “overreacted and applied a level of force that was completely unnecessary.”
To bring this sort of civil rights case to trial, plaintiffs have to show sufficient evidence of unreasonable use of force on someone who is not resisting.
An appeals court found there was enough evidence of unreasonable use of force by officer Herrera and Perez for Alexandre’s case to continue. The officers have denied claims of excessive force in court fillings.
Attorney Henry Hunnefeld, who is representing both officers in the case, told NBC 6 he “cannot address pending litigation.”
As for Ortiz, he was granted what’s called qualified immunity.
“What qualified immunity says is that they have to be completely incompetent or knowingly violated the law so if a police officer was negligent, there is no liability under qualified immunity,” said civil rights attorney Chezky Rodal.
Like Fenn, he says qualified immunity and a $200,000 cap on damages in state courts are just some of the hurdles that make suing police difficult.
“It’s just not a great business for lawyers to be in and the lawyers doing it are doing it because they care about justice, they care about civil rights,” Rodal said.
The head of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association, Steadman Stahl, says the safeguards in place for police are there for good reason.
“We are the one profession that can’t walk away,” Stahl said. “The roles of police officers out there are very difficult. We have a very difficult job that we have seconds to make decisions on.”
The courts seem to recognize that.
NBC 6 Investigators found at least 243 police misconduct claims filed against Miami-Dade county and its officers in the past five years.
But only $733,607 have been paid in settlements and attorney’s fees as of July of this year.
Attorneys tell us the county and the city fight hard on a field tilted in their favor.
“You get no type of justice,” Alexandre said.
But he believes lawsuits like his could bring change to the police force.
“That’s why we haven’t given up in seven years. If we had settled, then that continues, the aspect of them saying I’m guilty,” he added.
Ortiz, who is now a captain, has been suspended with pay since January. He is currently under investigation but the department wouldn’t say why. The police union didn’t respond to our multiple requests for comment about his suspension or Alexandre’s case.
Oscar Marrero, the attorney representing Ortiz on the civil case, told us his client “respectfully declines” to comment about the case.
As for the litigation, the city and county police agencies say they cannot comment on pending legal matters.