Crime

Miami Cop Who Didn't Stop Hannibal Buress' "False" Arrest Can't Claim Qualified Immunity

A recent appellate decision appears to clear the way for Hannibal Buress' federal lawsuit stemming from a 2017 arrest in Miami.
A recent appellate decision appears to clear the way for Hannibal Buress' federal lawsuit stemming from a 2017 arrest in Miami. Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images
Comedian Hannibal Buress was leaving a Wynwood bar after a night of drinking with friends during Art Basel on December 9, 2017. As he was walking to his hotel, he stepped in front of a Miami police officer and said into his body-worn camera: "Hey, what's up?! It’s me, Hannibal Buress! This cop is stupid as fuck."

The cop, Ofcr. Luis Verne, cautioned Buress to leave, and had reportedly done so several times previously, but as captured in body-worn camera footage later released by the Miami Police Department, Buress continued talking into Verne's camera: "Hey what's up, YouTube!"

"All right," Verne responded, "put your hands behind your back."

Verne arrested Buress for misdemeanor disorderly intoxication, a charge prosecutors would later drop. But in July 2020, Buress filed a federal lawsuit against the city, the Miami Police Department, and two Miami police officers, Verne and Elio Villegas. Buress alleged wrongful arrest and claimed that Villegas, who arrived after the arrest, failed to intervene. The comedian contends that the "false" arrest caused him to lose gigs and suffer emotional distress.

For the past two years, the lawsuit has stalled in Florida's Southern District Court as Villegas has filed motions to dismiss the claims, stating that he didn't know the arrest was unlawful and, moreover, that his participation is covered by so-called qualified immunity, the legal principle that protects police officers from being sued personally for actions on the job.

But on June 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a ruling denying Villegas' motion to dismiss the case and blocking him from claiming qualified immunity. Because Verne hasn’t sought to dismiss the case, the lawsuit, in which Buress seeks unspecified damages, is finally in a position to move forward.

The lower court had previously determined that Buress had "sufficiently" pleaded that Villegas saw Verne admit that he was only arresting Buress because the comedian had "roasted him."

"Specifically, when Buress stated in reference to Verne that '[h]e’s just salty that I roasted his ass,' and Verne replied, 'Yeah, I am,' that allegation could be read, in the light most favorable to Buress, that Villegas knew Verne was arresting Buress for a retaliatory purpose," reads the appellate decision, which is embedded at the end of this article.

Neither Buress' attorneys nor Miami City Attorney Victoria Mendez immediately responded to New Times' request for comments via email.

Earlier that evening, Buress walked up to Verne and asked if he could give him $20 to call him an Uber ride to his hotel because his phone battery was dead, and the on-duty officer reportedly declined. According to the ruling, the comedian then, referring to women Burress had allegedly seen Verne flirting with, quipped, "You’re over there kissing [women] but can’t call me an Uber?"

As described in the ruling, Verne ordered Buress to leave the street, and Buress walked into a bar in search of a phone charger or a patron willing to call him an Uber. Verne followed him inside and ordered Buress to leave because he "was too drunk to be on the premises." Buress then asked the officer, "If I can’t be on the street, where do you want me to be?"

After both men stepped outside, Verne turned on his body-worn camera and captured the encounter that led to the comedian's arrest.
As New Times previously reported, almost a year before Verne arrested Buress, in January 2017, the officer had violently choked a man and slammed his head into a railing at Miller's Ale House in Kendall after knocking back some drinks with fellow off-duty officers. A witness said Verne had "attacked" the man, though the cops claimed the Ale House guest had hurled "obscene" comments at Verne, including calling him a "pig."

According to the city's Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), Verne has repeatedly been accused of off-duty incidents "where allegations were made that he was under the influence of alcohol and had anger issues.
In January 2018, Verne allegedly rammed a Jeep into a motorist while off-duty and chased them down before whipping out a police badge and saying, "You don't know who you are fucking with. If you leave now, I'll forget this happened."

While Verne was reportedly disciplined by his bosses for the bar fight, it's unclear whether there were any consequences for the Jeep incident.
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Alex DeLuca is a staff writer at Miami New Times.
Contact: Alex DeLuca