Miami Cops Sued Over Fatal High-Speed Chase That Severed Bystander's Legs

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes
City of Miami Police
Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes
Since the 1990s, police departments across the nation have reevaluated when to chase suspects. If someone flees, cops' first instinct is to follow; thousands of TV episodes, back to Miami Vice and Starsky and Hutch, have trained the public that a cop's number one job is to chase down perpetrators, with no apparent concern for public property or consequences. But in 1990, the U.S. Department of Justice called police chases "the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities," and a 2015 USA Today investigation showed that high-speed pursuits have killed more than 5,000 innocent bystanders since 1979.

A new Miami lawsuit suggests exactly why police need to display caution when chasing down suspects: The complaint filed June 23 accuses undercover City of Miami cops of engaging in a high-speed pursuit that violated departmental policy and ultimately claimed the lives of a 21-year-old who was fleeing police and an innocent 44-year-old who suffered gruesome injuries and died on the scene.

Worse yet, the family of the bystander, Javier Muñoz, claims that because the cops were undercover, the department has not named the officers involved in the chase in the two years since the crash. (The City of Miami does not comment on active litigation.)

The accident was so gruesome it made local TV headlines two years ago. On November 9, 2015, police originally said they caught a black Infiniti "speeding" through Model City late that night and that the car was registered as stolen. They claim the driver, 21-year-old Lionel Dorilas, sped away southbound on NW 12th Avenue. But at NW 54th Street, cops claim, Dorilas lost control of the car, clipped Muñoz, who was biking on the sidewalk and talking on his cell phone, and dragged him until the car hit a tree and burst into flames.

Video obtained by NBC 6 showed bystanders rushing to wrench Dorilas out of the burning car, but they were unable to save him. Muñoz, meanwhile, was horrifically injured: His sister told NBC 6 that he was on the phone with his girlfriend when the car struck and that he screamed before the call went dead. Muñoz's legs were severed. He also died on the scene.

At the time, police danced around what exactly had caused the crash: In a Miami Herald recap the next day, a spokesperson for the department admitted only that detectives had "determined that there was possibly some law enforcement involvement prior to the crash."

But all along, Muñoz's family maintained that cops were the ones chasing Dorilas' Infiniti and complained to TV news crews that if the officers had not chased Dorilas for a nonviolent felony, perhaps both men would still be alive.

Now, nearly two years later, Muñoz's family has sued the city, alleging that the police chase violated departmental policy, which warns officers not to pursue suspects unless they are fleeing violent felony charges. The family claims Muñoz's civil rights were violated.

"As the police department refuses to provide the names of the officers who were engaged in the above described high-speed pursuit, plaintiff is not able to provide the names of such City of Miami undercover police officers," the suit says. "However, all such officers were acting within the course and scope of their own employment with [the] police department, carelessly disregarded [the] police department's own directives regarding high-speed pursuits, and caused a fleeing suspect to slam into Javier Muñoz, causing his death."

The suit says Directive 7.9 instructs officers to terminate police pursuits once they determine the offender is accused of a nonviolent felony. In addition, the suit says two other departmental rules instruct City of Miami cops to "properly assess the seriousness of the crime" before engaging in a high-speed chase and to "avoid endangering life" by taking note of areas full of pedestrians and bicyclists.

The family of the man who fled also claims something wasn't quite right with the whole ordeal: Though Dorilas' aunt did tell Local 10 that fleeing might have been a "dumb mistake," she called her nephew a "very quiet, humble man" who had recently bought the car "under the assumption that everything was on the up-and-up, but unfortunately he lost his life to know that that car was not legit."