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Eleventh Circuit Reinstates Florida Detainee’s Excessive-Force Claim Against Cop Who Sucker-Punched Him in Cell

by Kevin Bliss

On November 19, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit overturned a lower court’s decision to rule there was sufficient evidence requiring a jury finding in a case against the City of Miami Beach and one of its police officers, who is accused of brutalizing a detainee in a holding cell.

The detainee, Richard Johnson, was arrested for allegedly selling cocaine to two undercover police officers on March 24, 2017. Police followed him into a store, where one grabbed Johnson from behind and he pulled away, bumping into a display shelf, allegedly knocking over and shattering several hookahs.

Johnson then refused to get into the police vehicle, repeatedly demanding to know why he was under arrest. Miami Beach Police Officer Christopher Aguila told Johnson that he could get into the vehicle or Aguila would dislocate his shoulder. At that point Johnson complied.

Several more times during the arrest procedure, Johnson balked at officers’ orders but came short of physically resisting arrest, complying when threatened with more extreme measures. Finally, he was escorted to a holding cell. Although again hesitant, Johnson entered the cell and remained still as the door was closing. That’s when Aguila momentarily prevented the door from closing to quickly enter the cell, striking Johnson in the face with an elbow before then stepping back out.

Johnson filed suit in federal court for the Southern District of Florida against the City and Aguila for his use of excessive force, also lodging a state-law battery charge. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants, stating Aguila was protected by qualified immunity because any reasonable officer in the circumstances could have believed that the force used was necessary. In addition, since the force was not excessive, the district court said the battery charge could not be sustained and dismissed it.

Johnson filed an appeal with the Eleventh Circuit. In its de novo review, the Court studied security- and body-camera footage and noted that, at the time Aguila struck him, Johnson was not actively resisting arrest and did not pose an immediate threat to the safety of the police or others. Moreover, sufficient time had elapsed after Johnson entered the cell before Aguila followed and struck him that a jury may consider the force used was excessive.

So the district court’s decision was reversed and the case remanded for a new hearing of its claims, including the reinstated battery charge. The City requested a rehearing en banc before the full Eleventh Circuit, but that petition was denied on January 14, 2022. See: Johnson v. City of Miami Beach, 18 F.4th 1267 (11th Cir. 2021); and 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 1199 (11th Cir.)

Meanwhile an internal affairs investigation closed in 2019 with no disciplinary action other than a reprimand of Aguilar and another officer, and not for excessive force, but for not activating their body cameras. Johnson served two years after a conviction on his drug charges and was released.

The case has now returned to the district court for a trial set later in 2022, and PLN will report the outcome. Johnson was represented by attorneys Ilana Hope Eisenstein and John Owen Butler Wray of DLA Piper LLP, in Philadelphia and New York City, respectively, as well as Ralph Culpepper III of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, in Atlanta. See: Johnson v. City of Miami Beach & Christopher Aguila, USDC (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 1:18-cv-23925. 


Additional sources: Miami Beach News, WSVN


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Related legal case

Johnson v. City of Miami Beach & Christopher Aguila