Three years ago, prosecutors charged Homestead Police Officer Lester Brown after he shoved a handcuffed inmate into a wall at the police station, a blow severe enough to cause the man's face to bleed profusely. Brown later claimed self-defense, saying he feared the drunk, belligerent man was about to headbutt him or spit.
A Miami-Dade judge this week agreed with Brown, dismissing his battery charge under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law.
Circuit Judge Cristina Miranda, at a hearing on Tuesday, said she believed Brown's claim that he was trying to "make space" as Jose Trinidad Garcia Alvarado turned toward him while inside a detention cell. "Unfortunately, it is a small room and there is a wall," she said, according to a transcript. "I don't think he hoped to smash his head into a wall."
She added: "I don't believe that the defendant Brown has to wait to get headbutted, kicked, or spit at before making space."
The shove was captured on internal video surveillance from the Homestead police department, footage that was the key evidence against Brown. The ruling followed several days of hearings.
The dismissal was but the latest rough-arrest prosecution to end with no conviction in South Florida - several of the officers, such as Brown, claimed they used force because they were afraid they might get spit on. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office has lost at least three rough arrest cases at trial, while convicting two others, the most recent a county police officer who got 364 days in jail for tackling a crime victim.
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Brown's was also the latest case of a police officer being cleared under Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, which eliminated a citizen's duty to retreat before using force to meet a dangerous threat, and also gave judges greater leeway to dismiss criminal charges.
In 2018, the Florida Supreme Court, deciding in the case of a Broward sheriff's deputy who shot and killed a man carrying an air-rifle, ruled that self-defense law applies to police officers on duty as well. Two years later, a Broward County judge cited the law in dismissing a misdemeanor case against a deputy who pepper-sprayed a teenager during a fracas in the parking lot of a Tamarac strip mall.
As for Brown, he is still facing an official misconduct charge. He's accused of lying on a report about the circumstances of the arrest. But the judge's decision will likely force prosecutors to drop the charge.
"We are evaluating the status of the case, which may be in peril because of the Stand Your Ground decision," State Attorney's spokesman Ed Griffith said.
Brown was accused of battering Trinidad, a migrant worker who had been arrested for resisting arrest and disorderly intoxication - he'd drank upward of 20 beers. Early on the morning of Dec. 18, 2018, Trinidad was transported to Homestead police headquarters for booking. Shirtless, his hands handcuffed behind his back, he was led into the station, where Brown worked as a booking officer.
According to a defense motion, Brown had heard on the radio that three officers were needed to arrest Trinidad, and "that he was spitting on officers." When the other officers arrived at the Homestead police station, he saw another cop "pulling" Trinidad out of the patrol car by his feet.
Then, Brown said, he saw the handcuffed man pulling away from an officer, Darryl Mays, "in a violent and aggressive manner," and heard him vow not to go into the detention cell, the motion said.
Moments later, Mays escalated the tension by yelling at Trinidad "to speak English - you are in America," the motion said. As Brown led him into the room, he kept trying to look at Mays.
"Suddenly, [Trinidad] completely spun around to face Officer Brown face-to-face!" defense attorney Anthony Genova wrote in his motion.
"It was this precise moment Office Brown - who is missing a thumb - could no longer control" Trinidad, the motion said. "Due to Officer Brown's law enforcement training he knew that a handcuffed person can still be a threat to his physical safety by head butting or spitting in his face, which could pass diseases if it got into his eyes."
Brown shoved him, and Trinidad tripped over his feet and hit the wall, Genova wrote.
Judge Miranda believed Brown.
"I do believe that a reasonable and prudent person situated in the same circumstances and knowing what [Brown] knew would have used the force and reacted in the same way," Miranda said.