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Miami Cop Arrests Man Recording Him, Steals His Phone

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On March 8, an Uber driver named Sergio Morales pulled over at 729 SW First Street at 2:30 a.m. to pick up a customer when Miami Police Department Officer Daniel Crocker rapped on the window. When the driver asked Crocker if he was a cop or a security guard, he says, the cop threatened to arrest him. That's when Morales pulled out his phone to record the conversation and things really went to hell.

Crocker ended up taking the driver's phone, never giving it back, and arresting the Uber driver for resisting an officer and refusal to obey police commands, charges that were quickly dropped. That's what the Civilian Investigative Panel, an independent body that considers police complaints, found when they looked into Morales' complaints. While MPD's internal affairs unit said there wasn't enough evidence to show Crocker stole the phone, the CIP said the case was clear — and recommended sustaining the charge against the cop.

The case shows, yet again, that some Miami-area officers have a serious issue with being recorded on-duty: Miami cops have been cited repeatedly for refusing to use their body cameras correctly, and two Miami officers, Reynaldo Irias and Yesid Ortiz, were sued earlier this year for allegedly arresting a man in a situation similar to the Crocker case.

According to the CIP investigation, the minute Morales told the cop he was recording, Crocker yanked the phone out of his hand and told him he was under arrest. In fact, the officer admitted as much in his arrest report.

"I told the defendant to put down the electronic device and he refuses to put down the electronic device and he refused those commands," Crocker wrote in an arrest affidavit. He then claimed that being recorded was somehow a "safety" issue. "For my safety I had to physically take the electronic device from the defendant’s hand.”

CIP investigators said that when Morales was booked at the jail, intake documents show he had his driver’s license, insurance card, keys, a watch, bracelet, and a wallet. But no phone. It was nearly impossible that he'd traveled without one, given that Morales was an Uber driver about to pick somebody up.

"Contact was made with Records who advised there was no Property Receipt generated under Mr. Morales’ arrest case number, or his name," a CIP investigator wrote. "And I pulled the Vehicle Storage Receipt from when his car was towed that night and it did not list any personal property inside the vehicle." The phone seems to have vanished. The next day, Morales showed cops a receipt that proved he went out and bought a new phone, too.

The incident raises two obvious points. For one, there's no reason internal affairs shouldn't have also punished the officer. (CIP complaints are nonbinding recommendations.) And secondly, the case suggests MPD cops are either unclear that citizens can legally record them while they're working, or simply don't care to follow the law. When a pair of Miami-Dade County Police officers was caught handcuffing a legless woman and dropping her on the ground last year, body-camera footage showed the cops trying to shoo away a civilian recording on his cell phone.

In a case with even larger implications for civilians, local scientist and police-reform advocate Eric McDonough won a major appeals-court case last month after he recorded a conversation with Homestead Police Chief Al Rolle as the two men spoke in Rolle's office. Rolle tried to sic prosecutors on McDonough, and Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle obligingly sent McDonough a letter threatening to arrest him if he tried to record Rolle again. But McDonough sued, and a federal appeals court ruled last month that Rundle threatened him illegally.

MPD may need to brush up on the rules of recording cops in public as well.

"Staff finds there are sufficient facts to show that Mr. Morales had his cell phone aka electronic device during the contact with Officer Crocker, and that it was not in property when he was booked at the correctional facility, it was not impounded in the property unit, or left in his vehicle," investigators wrote. "We also... were able to verify through documentation he gave us that he did have to replace his phone the day after his arrest."

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