Woman Challenges Miami Beach Law Used to Arrest People Filming Police

Photo by edwardhblake via Flickr
Back in the summer of 2021, Mariyah Maple was visiting Miami on the weekend of hip-hop festival Rolling Loud. During her trip, a crowd gathered around police activity in the streets of Miami Beach in the early morning hours, and Maple began recording the commotion on her phone.

A police report states that members of the crowd, including Maple, did not disperse when officers ordered them away, and that Sergeant Vincent Stella had to use his bicycle as a "physical barrier to protect" the crime scene. Maple was detained and charged with violating a Miami Beach ordinance supposedly designed to prevent harassment of local police.

But video footage from the incident called into question the details in the police report. It showed the sergeant striking Maple with the bicycle and then dousing her with pepper spray within three seconds of telling her to "get back."

While the charge against her was dropped, Maple is moving forward with a lawsuit against Stella and two other officers involved in her arrest.

"My trip to Miami Beach was like a horror movie,” Maple recounted in a press release detailing the July 25, 2021 incident. “One day, I'm celebrating my birthday with my family and friend. The next day, a police officer hits me with his bike, pepper-sprays me, and then arrests me with a group of other officers."

Last week, U.S. District Judge Beth Bloom ruled the 28-year-old can file an amended complaint to also sue the City of Miami Beach and challenge the constitutionality of its ordinance.

The ordinance, which was passed in June 2021, makes it illegal for people "to approach or remain within 20 feet of a law enforcement officer" with the "intent to directly or indirectly harass" police, among other provisions.

"Ms. Maple asks the Court to find Ordinance 70-8 unconstitutional and hold the City of Miami Beach responsible for her injuries," Maple's attorneys said in the release. "She alleges that the ordinance creates a vague standard, authorizes arbitrary enforcement, criminalizes protected speech, and discriminates against certain viewpoints and topics."

Critics of the ordinance say it represents an assault on free speech and enables law enforcement to arrest people for filming police officers. The Florida Senate and House of Representatives tried to pass similar laws of their own titled,"Impeding, Provoking, or Harassing Law Enforcement Officers," but both died in committees.

“I spent three years in law school and three years working for federal judges, and I don’t know what ‘indirectly harass’ means," Maple's civil rights attorney, Sam Thypin-Bermeo, said. "How this vague, arbitrary, and discriminatory law provides fair notice to anyone about what it prohibits is beyond me.”

In addition to her constitutional claims, Maple includes counts for excessive force, false arrest, and malicious prosecution against the defendant police officers.

The ordinance garnered national attention when it was used to charge two men who were violently arrested at the Royal Palm Hotel in Miami Beach after recording police arresting another man. Several officers were charged with assault in connection with the incident, which took place a day after Maple's episode.

The Miami Beach Police Department announced in August 2021 that it had stopped enforcing the law after a series of controversial arrests. It is not clear when and if the department will resume enforcing it.

Nonetheless, a court ruling in Maple's lawsuit could have wide-reaching implications outside of Miami Beach: If the circuit court finds the ordinance to be unconstitutional, cities across Miami-Dade County would be dissuaded from passing similar measures. 

Maple's criminal defense attorney Chad Piotrowski says he has "never seen a law that criminalizes such a broad swath of protected activity."

The Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Florida Justice Center were set to defend a number of people arrested in violation of the ordinance. That never proved necessary as the city decided not to pursue charges in such cases.

Florida isn't the only state attempting to broaden police power to arrest bystanders. An Arizona law went into effect in September that bans people from video recording within eight feet of "law enforcement activity."