Thursday, October 18, 2012 at 8 a.m.
Attention Miami residents: Next time you're out and about, having a perhaps animated discussion near some cops, be careful. You might find yourself on the receiving end of a surprise flying tackle.
That's what Elsa and Gustavo Martinez say happened to them two years ago outside a Kendall lounge. The siblings claim that a pair of Miami-Dade police officers manhandled them, then arrested them on trumped up charges of battery and resisting arrest. But armed with security camera footage that allegedly contradicts the arrest report filed by one of the officers, the Martinez siblings are firing back with a lawsuit seeking damages for their ordeal.
The Martinez's lawsuit also claims that MDPD encourages a culture of excessive force and looks the other way on brutality complaints. It doesn't help that one of the officers named in the lawsuit, Jose A. Huerta, was also sued in 2011 for roughing up a disabled U.S. Army veteran in a 2007 arrest.
"They felt the treatment they got was unacceptable," says Timothy Vannatta, the lawyer for Elsa and Gustavo.
The Miami-Dade Police Department declined to comment, citing the open nature of the case, according to spokesman Javier Baez.
According to the lawsuit, on October 3, 2010, Elsa and Gustavo were having a discussion outside Blue Martini Lounge in Kendall. Suddenly, two Miami-Dade cops -- Huerta and an unidentified officer -- who were working a security detail for the restaurant began to scream at Gustavo. As he tried to back away from Huerta, a third officer, Orlando Fleites, "hurled himself into the air so as to knock down" Gustavo.
After the flying tackle, the lawsuit states, Huerta, Fleites and the unidentified officer forced Gustavo to the ground, at which point Huerta "proceeded to strike Gustavo in the head with several closed-fist strikes." After that, Huerta allegedly grabbed Elsa Martinez "by her neck/throat with his right hand ... slamming her onto a nearby bench."
At no point, according to the lawsuit, did either Huerta or Fleites explain why they were attacking or arresting the Martinez siblings. The lawsuit states that, in Fleites' arrest report, he claimed that Gustavo had pushed Elsa against a wall and refused to stop when ordered by the officers. Huerta "claimed that Elsa Martinez attempted to stop the officers on scene from arresting her brother by pulling on ... his shoulder."
Elsa was arrested on charges of battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. Gustavo was booked on a domestic violence battery charge and resisting arrest. Those charges were eventually dropped.
As well as Huerta, Fleites, and Blue Martini, the Martinez siblings are suing MDPD and former director James Loftus for what they claim is a "policy and custom of encouraging, tolerating, permitting and ratifying a pattern of improper conduct by his officers which ... would lead to his officers to believe such conduct is permissible." Furthermore, the lawsuit states that Loftus and MDPD "failed to, and or refused to, adequately investigate complaints of previous incidents of wrongful and excessive force."
"Our position is that the way the department was run created an environment in which it was, if not acceptable, certainly in the realm of possibility to use excessive force," Vannatta says.
Given the prior conduct of Jose Huerta, it's not a dubious assertion. According to a February 2011 lawsuit filed by Ricardo Figueroa, Huerta used the same tactics -- intimidation and violence -- when detaining him at a Metrorail station in 2007. Huerta arrested Figueroa for going through a gate without paying, using a leg sweep and chokehold to take Figueroa down, then handcuffing him, despite Figueroa's protests.
As it turns out, Figueroa was a disabled veteran who had been given a Patriot Passport by the county, entitling him to free rides. That didn't stop Huerta, who allegedly falsified the arrest report for that incident, claiming that Figueroa was aggressive, refusing to identify himself, and resisting arrest. Figueroa then claimed that Huerta committed perjury during the trial with his testimony. Figueroa's lawsuit was eventually dismissed.
According to MDPD spokesman Baez, Huerta is no longer on the force, as "he was terminated on a matter that was not related to this case." Baez declined to comment on the open lawsuit. Riptide was unable to reach Huerta.
As for the Martinez siblings, their lawyer Vannatta hopes that, with video evidence, he can prove that the cops were in the wrong. He and his clients are looking for damages and a trial jury.