Tyler Witt says he was walking to catch his plane at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport when a Spirit Airlines employee approached him from behind, grabbed his bicep, and said, "You are not flying anywhere today!" Within moments, Witt was surrounded by Broward Sheriff's deputies — one of whom violently body-slammed him, knocking him unconscious. In an arrest report, the cops claimed that Witt was stopped from boarding the plane because he was intoxicated and that he'd yelled the N-word at the Spirit agent.
But in a new lawsuit filed in the Florida Southern District Court, the 35-year-old graphics manager from Texas says that's not at all what happened. He says he had only two glasses of wine before the flight — and has the receipts to prove it. He insists he never yelled a racial slur. And he says video from the terminal shows the police violently attacking him for no reason as he's led away from the gate.
The altercation happened October 26, 2016, when Witt arrived at the airport about two hours early. He dropped off his rental car before heading to a restaurant to sit and do some work on his computer.
Witt, who is gay, was on his way home after tagging along on his partner's business trip. He had two glasses of Chardonnay and some chicken wings while he looked at his photos from the weekend, including ones of himself and his partner smiling and enjoying their time together. He posted some to Facebook. He paid the bill — $26.56 — and then headed toward his gate.
That's when the trouble began. A Spirit employee named Kurt Williams told Witt he wouldn't be allowed on the flight, the lawsuit says, without explaining who he was or why Witt was being held off the plane. As Williams led Witt away, two or three BSO deputies arrived.
The security footage shows some of the officers exchanging chest bumps with Williams as he greeted them, Witt's lawsuit says. As the cops surrounded Witt, Williams walked away — but then something caused the Spirit employee to come racing back. The surveillance video did not capture audio, but it showed Dep. Rodrigo Seminario "violently swinging his arm across the plaintiff's neck, whereupon plaintiff is immediately upended such that his feet fly up in the air as head and body are slammed onto the ground," knocking Witt out, according to the lawsuit.
Witt spent the night in jail on charges of disorderly intoxication and resisting an officer without violence, which were later dropped.
In his report on the incident, Seminario says he had to use force on Witt after the irate passenger began yelling at Williams.
"He was screaming at the Spirit manager due to the fact that he was not allowed to fly because of his current impaired and belligerent state of mind," Seminario wrote in the report. "He continued to scream at the Spirit manager that he was a 'n——-.'"
But Witt says he never hurled any slurs. In fact, he says, the deputies body-slammed him for no reason after Williams walked back toward them. "[He] was arrested in retaliation for his free speech after Williams walked away, but lost self-control and turned back to confront Plaintiff," the suit says. Witt maintains he was not intoxicated and requested a Breathalyzer test to prove it on multiple occasions, but was ignored.
Witt and his attorney, Hugh Koerner, say Seminario made several provably false statements in the arrest affidavit, including alleging that Witt's behavior drew a large crowd (though they say surveillance shows there was no crowd at all) and that Witt had "no complaint of injury" despite the fact that the deputy's body-slam left Witt unconscious and with a large red welt that was clearly visible on his forehead in his booking photo.
Seminario has been sued for excessive force before. Seminario, along with BSO Sheriff Scott Israel and two others, was sued in federal court in 2012 when he and the other deputies, with guns drawn, barged into the wrong house, terrifying the old woman who lived there. The case was settled out of court.
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A man named Jerry Byrd also claimed in a 2015 federal lawsuit that on October 15, 2014, Seminario kicked him repeatedly after he had already been handcuffed by other officers in a Walmart parking lot after being arrested for theft. The lawsuit, which was filed pro se by Byrd — who was sentenced to 45 months in that case — was later dismissed.
Witt says he has suffered from anxiety since his arrest and had to see a physical therapist for the tears to his vertebrae. He's suing Seminario for excessive use of force, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and violating his First Amendment rights by arresting him for his speech directed at Williams. He's also suing Sheriff Israel and Spirit Airlines.
"At no time was Plaintiff drunk or intoxicated from the two glasses of Chardonnay wine consumed with his meal as he proceed to the gate for his flight, and Plaintiff’s comportment as a gay man could never be confused by any reasonable individual the conduct of a person who is drunk or intoxicated," the lawsuit states.
Spirit did not respond to New Times' requests for comment. The Broward County Sheriff's office declined to comment on pending litigation. Williams, who no longer works for Spirit, did not respond to messages.