Sabrian Bruton says having a cover on his license plate nearly got him killed.
According to a lawsuit filed Friday by the Miami-Dade County resident, Bruton, now age 31, was driving a black Buick Encore SUV on SE 18th Avenue in Homestead on July 6, 2018, when lights flashed in his rearview mirror around 2:30 p.m.
Bruton says he pulled over immediately and waited for an officer to walk up to his window. But when he turned to face the cop who'd arrived, Bruton says he saw Homestead Police Department (HPD) Officer Christian DeJohn standing at the window with his handgun aimed directly at Bruton's face. With DeJohn's gun drawn, Bruton says he learned the officer had pulled him over simply to discuss his license plate cover.
"Bruton, startled, pleaded with the officer not to shoot him," the federal lawsuit alleges. Bruton says that as he begged for his life, a second cop, Eileen Calvo, arrived on the scene and DeJohn eventually put his gun down. But the situation apparently did not remain calm for long — Bruton says the cops returned to their cars, ran his information, came back, and ordered him out of his Buick.
"Bruton complied, upon which DeJohn again drew his firearm and ordered Bruton to the ground," the suit says. "Bruton, afraid of the officer's increasingly agitated demeanor, again pleaded with DeJohn not to shoot him and appealed to Calvo for assistance."
Calvo, however, had allegedly drawn her Taser, ducked back into her vehicle, and started rolling the car closer to where Bruton was standing. Bruton says this made him afraid she might run him over — so he says he started backing up and begging not to be shot. But Bruton says the cops kept closing in on him, so he made the choice to run for his life.
Once he took off, Bruton says, four more cops — Kevin Carvajal, Engelburt Guzman, Carlos Lago, and Shavar Simmons — rushed to the scene to help Calvo and DeJohn track him down. The six officers eventually found Bruton, who says the agitated group of cops responded by pinning him to the ground and gang-beating him within an inch of his life. The suit alleges the six cops punched and kicked Bruton in the face, slammed him into the ground repeatedly, and painfully wrenched his limbs in odd positions to restrain him. Bruton says the attack forced him to pay out medical expenses and left him with permanent scarring.
"DeJohn, Calvo, Carvajal, Guzman, Lago, and Simmons caught up to Bruton and savagely beat him until he fell unconscious," the suit states.
A Homestead Police spokesman, Sgt. Fernando Morales, tells New Times the city will "defend itself" and that if any misconduct did occur, the city would root it out. Morales did not deny that officers repeatedly struck Bruton — but he stressed that, in the police department's view, the violence was warranted. Morales says the city has repeatedly asked Bruton to return to the police department to make a formal complaint, but Bruton has refused on the advice of his lawyers. Morales says the department could not investigate the case further without Bruton's cooperation. (Homestead Police do not currently use body-worn cameras.)
"There is an open investigation into this," Morales says. "If there was any type of force used that was not supposed to be used, that will absolutely be something the Homestead Police Department deals with."
Arrest forms from that day tell a different story than Bruton does in his suit. Police stated they did indeed stop Bruton for an improper license plate cover. But DeJohn, the cop who first arrived on the scene, alleged that Bruton initially stated his name was "Kenneth." Police claimed he'd been driving with a suspended license and that while officers were running a records check on his tag, Bruton allegedly drove his car roughly 100 feet forward, bailed out, and then ran on foot. Only then does DeJohn claim he drew his gun.
"I began a light jog towards the offender and continued to give verbal commands," DeJohn wrote. "The offender began a light run while saying, 'Do not shoot me!'"
DeJohn says Calvo followed slowly behind Bruton in her car as he ran on foot. After Bruton jumped a fence, the four other cops arrived on the scene. DeJohn said he did not witness Bruton's arrest and does not explain in the arrest form how Bruton received the numerous facial injuries visible in his mugshot.
"I was advised that the offender kicked at and swung his arms at officers several times to prevent being taken into custody," DeJohn wrote. "The offender also repeatedly reached toward his waistband for an unknown reason." He added: "When I observed the offender after officers took him into custody, he had blood in the area of his mouth."
Tellingly, Bruton's lawyers attached an HPD "use-of-force" report to their complaint, wherein officers admit to using "hands, fists, and feet" to beat Bruton and to noticing "visible signs of injury" on his body after the attack ended. The report also notes that Bruton audibly complained he was injured after the beating. Documents state that Homestead Police took Bruton to a nearby hospital at 4 p.m. that day. In documents attached to the case, four cops — Carvajal, Guzman, Lago, and Simmons — each filed reports stating they'd hit Bruton.
The records show two different HPD supervisors reviewed the officers' use-of-force statements. Both found the beating was "within policy guidelines," that "training and proper tactics were followed," and that "lesser-force alternatives were not available."
Morales, the Homestead PD spokesman, says "hands" were only used to pin Bruton to the ground and that "closed-fist strikes," also known as punches, are considered legal uses of force.
Reached by phone, Bruton's lawyers declined to comment further beyond what has been alleged in the complaint.
"But we take these cases very seriously," one of Bruton's lawyers, John P. Fischer, tells New Times. "Our firm specifically handles civil-rights cases."
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To put things mildly, this is not the first time HPD has been accused of abusing its power under longtime Chief Al Rolle. In 2014, Rolle was investigated by state and local authorities after allegedly working to hide or destroy public records requested by a cop he'd fired. Cops have repeatedly hauled the city's critics out of public commission meetings and arrested them simply for criticizing city leaders — in 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city after the department arrested a local schoolteacher named Kim Hill simply because he was standing in a city commission meeting asking the city to make local cops wear body cameras.
A different activist who'd also been arrested for criticizing the city commission, James Eric McDonough, separately sued the city in 2017 and alleged that a group of Homestead cops had been harassing him for years due to his activism. In 2018, the family of Edward Foster, a man shot six times by Homestead cops and killed in 2015, sued the city and alleged that Foster was kneeling when the department killed him.
Online court records show prosecutors charged Bruton with ten different criminal counts after he was apprehended, including driving with a suspended license, fleeing from a police officer, resisting officers both with and without violence, and even burglary. But prosecutors dropped nine of the charges after Bruton pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor charge of criminal mischief. He served no jail time and was only ordered to pay a fine to the court.
"The injuries and damages are permanent in nature," his new lawsuit says, "and Bruton will suffer losses and impairments in the future."