For years, cops accused of needlessly tasering suspects have been protected in South Florida. Even in instances when suspects have died after being shocked, officers have avoided blame in both criminal and civil courts.
That could be changing, however. Last week, district judge James Lawrence King ruled that a jury will hear a lawsuit against West Miami cops over the Taser-involved death of 21-year-old George Salgado.
"This ruling really changes the landscape here in South Florida as to what courts will accept from officers discharging their Tasers," Keith Pierro, an attorney representing Salgado's parents, tells New Times.
New Times reported about Salgado's death in a recent investigation into Taser abuse by local cops:
George Salgado was a handsome and easygoing 21-year-old. When cops arrived, however, they found him attacking a stranger. Salgado and his girlfriend, Amanda, had gotten into a loud argument. Then Salgado, stark naked and demanding drugs, had knocked on a neighbor's door.
Salgado launched himself at the neighbor and tore at the old man's clothes. "It was like I was being attacked by a panther, a lion, a tiger," 72-year-old Israel Rodriguez later testified. West Miami police found Salgado jumping on his bed, saying he was God and asking cops for a kiss. When Salgado allegedly moved toward them, two cops tasered him simultaneously.
But the arrest didn't end there. West Miami and Miami-Dade officers combined to taser Salgado around 15 more times. He died 14 hours later. The Miami-Dade coroner ruled the cause of death "excited delirium" but didn't find any drugs in Salgado's system.
"My son was tased between 13 and 19 times," says Salgado's dad, Jorge. "He was unarmed and naked, so how much of a threat could he have been?"
Salgado's death marked the beginning of a new trend of deadly Taser incidents in South Florida.
On August 6, 2013, 18-year-old artist Israel Hernandez was fatally tasered by Miami Beach Police after he was caught tagging an abandoned McDonald's. Since then, at least four other men have died after being tasered by local cops.
The Salgados are one of several families to sue over their son's death. They initially filed suit against Taser, Miami-Dade County, the City of West Miami, and cops from both departments.
The family eventually dropped their complaint against Taser because "the facts demonstrated excessive use of force," Pierro says, and settled with Miami-Dade. (As part of the deal, the two MDPD officers were dropped from the suit.)
That left only the City of West Miami and two of its cops: Sgt. Myrna Lopez and Officer Raul Baron.
According to court records, Sergeant Lopez had fired her Taser twice at Salgado, striking him once. Officer Baron had tasered Salgado four times in quick succession.
On February 4, Judge King ruled that Lopez was "entitled to qualified immunity" from being sued because her "actions were clearly reasonable... the single use of a Taser against a 'hostile, belligerent, and uncooperative'' suspect [does] not constitute excessive force."
When it came to Baron, however, King ruled there was a legitimate argument that the cop had acted unreasonably and broken the law.
"Plaintiffs have shown enough facts which, if credited by the factfinder, support the conclusions that Salgado complied with Baron's initial order to go belly down; that certain of Baron's successive Taser discharges were unprovoked by noncompliance with orders; that the force used was potentially fatal; and that to the extent Salgado did not comply with orders, his noncompliance consisted of merely rolling on the floor or crawling," King wrote.
"These disputed facts, when construed in the light most favorable to Plaintiffs, bring Baron's conduct -- at least his second through fourth Taser discharges -- well within the ambit of the above-stated clearly established law, such that the unlawfulness of his conduct would be clear to any reasonable official. Baron is not entitled to qualified immunity."
King's decision means the case can now go to a jury trial.
The simple fact that a jury will hear arguments about an unlawful police tasering is unprecedented, Pierro says. "Before this, cases were getting tossed all the time."
"I couldn't be happier for my clients," he adds. "They are going to have their day in court."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
A West Miami Police spokesman declined to comment for this story due to the ongoing litigation.