Man Says Miami Cops Arrested Him for Recording Them on His Cell Phone

In most instances, it's perfectly legal to record police officers in public. Yet cops regularly arrest and harass people filming them, which is why one of the most followed police-accountability websites is called Photography Is Not a Crime.

City of Miami Police still haven't figured out that they can't pester people who record them from the street, at least according to a new federal lawsuit. On July 22, 2015, Miami-Dade resident Mario Javier Cordoba, age 42, says two MPD officers handcuffed him and threw him in the back of a cop car for trying to record his encounter with officers.

Cordoba's allegations echo an increasingly common problem in an era of smartphones. The American Civil Liberties Union says, "There is a widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places and harassing, detaining, and arresting those who fail to comply."

That's exactly what Cordoba says happened to him. (Miami PD declines to comment on ongoing lawsuits.)

Around 7 p.m. that evening, Cordoba says he stood in front of his apartment on the 500 block of SW Seventh Street, minding his own business with his phone in his hand. A fruit vendor stood across the street. As he watched the vendor hawk his items, Cordoba says, a cop car rolled up, and the officer inside got out to question the man. A second officer then drove up to back up the first.

Then, Cordoba says, the cops — Officers Reynaldo Irias and Yesid Ortiz — turned around, crossed the street, and cornered him.

"Both officers then walked across the street to Mr. Cordoba and began questioning him about whether Mr. Cordoba had been recording the police officers’ encounter with the fruit vendor," the suit says.

Cordoba says he repeatedly denied he'd been recording anyone. (Though, it's worth noting, recording cops on the street in Florida isn't illegal.) Cordoba then whipped out his phone to capture the alleged harassment from the two cops, which, the suit says, sure didn't please the camera-shy officers.

"What is the issue with the recording?" one cop asked, according to the suit.

They then allegedly ripped the phone from his hand and grabbed him by the arms.

"Without any warning to Mr. Cordoba, one of the officers took hold of Mr. Cordoba’s right arm while the other officer grabbed his left arm," the suit says. "They forced Mr. Cordoba around and pulled his arms behind his back to handcuff him." Cordoba claims the handcuffing twisted his back, causing "severe pain."

The cops then allegedly tossed Cordoba into the back of a cruiser and hauled him to jail. He was arrested for resisting an officer without violence. Those charges were dropped less than three months later.

On November 8, Cordoba sued the City of Miami and the two cops for battery, false arrest, and violating his civil rights. Cordoba has been arrested twice for battery (in 2011 and 1997), though both charges were dismissed. He was convicted of disorderly conduct and obstructing a police officer in 1994, at age 20, and arrested once in 1990 for allegedly acting as an accessory to a crime at age 18. In that instance, he took a plea deal to avoid jail time.

Cordoba's lawyer didn't return a call to comment on this story.

Though it's illegal to record someone without his or her consent in Florida, those laws don't apply in public spaces, where people have no reasonable right to privacy. Cops in most states can't tell you to stop recording them: In April 2015, the chairman of Washington, D.C.'s metropolitan police union told the Atlantic that as a "basic principle, we can't tell you to stop recording."

Officers do, however, have the right to tell you to turn your phone off if you're somehow interfering with their work. Scores of amateur photographers and videographers have reported having their cameras or phones confiscated for "obstructing" cops.

Here's a copy of the complaint:

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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.