After Hollywood police arrested two Black men for allegedly trespassing at a Party City store in 2019, a cashier prepared a written statement saying the men had forced their way inside after being told by employees that the store had closed for the night.
"They forced themselves after we told them no," the employee wrote. "When the cops arrived and try to come to the male with the purple hoodie, he got angry fast and started resisting, verbally and physically."
The two men, 20-year-old Ricardo Florestal and 23-year-old Bill Alcius, were booked on charges of trespassing and resisting arrest; police charged Alcius with an additional count of battery on a law-enforcement officer.
But in a sworn interview more than a year later, the cashier told Florestal's defense attorney that what she'd recounted in her written statement that night was not the true version of events but rather a narrative that police dictated for her to write down.
"In my opinion, I'm not really safe around the cops. I don't feel safe around them. So, I just like — I did not know what to write at the moment. They told me what to write, word for word," the employee told Florestal's attorney.
The cashier said her written statement was not a fair and accurate retelling of the events of that night, adding that her manager had in fact opened the door for Florestal and Alcius and let them into the store.
Citing the new information, the Broward State Attorney's Office dismissed the case against Florestal last month.
According to a close-out memo, prosecutors "could not determine whether the defendant was in fact trespassing based on the state's witness indicating that the defendant had a right to be on the property and was purchasing goods from the store."
Florestal's attorney, Tobechuku T. Nwahiri, tells New Times that the case is a rare one where he was able to prove his client's insistence that police had made a false arrest.
"I've had plenty of clients tell me it's not what happened, what they wrote in the report. It's just you never really have the ability to prove that," Nwahiri says.
The Hollywood Police Department did not respond to two emails from New Times seeking comment.
The incident at Party City happened around closing time — 8:30 p.m. — on February 13, 2019. Florestal and Alcius arrived just before the store officially closed, and the manager had already partially shut the door. A white or Hispanic customer came to pick up a balloon order and was admitted into the store, and the manager relented when Florestal and Alcius pleaded to be let inside, saying they'd be quick.
According to the cashier's deposition, the customer with the balloon order then called the Hollywood Police Department on his cell phone, apparently believing Florestal and Alcius were trying to rob the store. Overhearing the conversation, the store's manager told him it was not necessary to involve police — another Party City employee was already helping Florestal find the costume he was looking for, and there was no robbery underway.
The manager then made her own call to the police department to say it was not necessary to send officers to the store. But police arrived shortly after, saying they needed to investigate.
By the time the officers arrived, Florestal had paid for his costume and was preparing to leave. When the police began questioning Florestal and Alcius, they grew defensive, saying they'd done nothing wrong.
"You see I'm paying," Florestal says in a video he captured on his cell phone:
According to the cashier, one of the officers began patting down Florestal without warning and then accused him of resisting.
"I'm resisting what? What am I resisting?" Florestal can be heard saying.
After Florestal was dragged outside by three officers, the cashier handed Alcius the bag with Florestal's costume. As Alcius attempted to leave the store, he crossed paths with another officer. Surveillance video shows the two bumping shoulders, prompting the officer to hit Alcius in the head and grab his braids.
In Alcius' arrest report, police described that encounter as a battery by Alcius upon the officer.
"Bill Alcius did intentionally touch or strike Officer Raul Toledo and caused bodily harm to Officer Raul Toledo," the report says. "...Defendant Alcius while being escorted out of the store lowered his right shoulder and struck K9 Officer Toledo in the left side."
Nwahiri, the defense attorney representing Florestal, tells New Times he believes the officers pressured the Party City employees to write an account that would justify their use of force in arresting Florestal and Alcius.
"They have to justify their actions by getting these Party City employees to write a narrative that they forced their way into the store," Nwahiri says.
Alcius told New Times back in 2019 that he believed the case was an example of "shopping while Black," a phrase used to describe the way Black people are surveilled and regarded with suspicion while simply trying to shop like any other customer.
"I felt racially profiled," Alcius said.
Nwahiri believes the two men were racially profiled by the customer picking up balloons, which in turn led to the encounter that escalated with police.
"It's definitely a situation of shopping while Black," he says. "It's a perfect, clear example."
While prosecutors have dismissed the charges in Florestal's case, Nwahiri is still working to clear Alcius' record. In November 2019, Alcius, who faced the more serious battery charge, pleaded no contest to the trespassing charge in a deal with prosecutors, who agreed to dismiss the charges of battery and resisting arrest. He was sentenced to a year of probation.
Nwahiri says he's in the process of reopening Alcius' case in order to have it dismissed altogether.
Although the case is no longer weighing on Florestal, Nwahiri says the charges loomed large for his client over the past two years.
"To be facing jail time for something that you know you didn't do and then [have] all the evidence to be drafted to say that you actually did something — that's taken a toll on my client," Nwahiri says.
In this case, the attorney says, he's thankful there were videos that depicted the incident and a witness with the courage to eventually tell the truth.
"[Florestal] came to me and he said he didn't do it, and I had to do everything I can to make sure we can prove that," Nwahiri says. "I'm lucky we were successful in that."