Former Miami police officer Mario Figueroa was acquitted of assault yesterday despite a viral video that appeared to show the officer kicking a handcuffed suspect in the head. Figueroa’s attorney argued that the attention around the case made this a “Facebook misdemeanor.”
The incident happened in May 2018 after 31-year-old David Suazo stole a Jeep, sending cops on a high-speed chase. Suazo was already face-down on the ground in handcuffs when Officer Figueroa kicked at the suspect’s face, as you can see from the video captured by an onlooker. But the officer claimed he never made contact with Suazo and therefore his actions were justified.
“This was a crime created on social media. This was a Facebook misdemeanor,” Figueroa’s attorney Robert Buschel said, according to the Miami Herald. “In a court of law, the case failed.”
Video of the incident went viral on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube before being picked up by local news. In the full video you can see that the suspect was on the ground for a considerable amount of time before Officer Figueroa comes on the scene.
Bodycam footage released later shows Officer Figueroa taunting the suspect in the hospital, saying, “If I wanted to kick you, you know, I would have kicked you right?”
Miami-Dade county judge Michael Barket dismissed the charges midway through the case on Wednesday before Figueroa’s attorney even presented a defense. Miami-Dade prosecutors said that while Officer Figueroa may not have made contact, he still went too far. And Miami’s police chief agrees.
“What I saw depicted in the video, I felt was not in the best interest of the department,” Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina told the Miami Herald yesterday. “We’re in the business of building trust in the community. We can’t have the community afraid of the police.”
Officer Figueroa was fired but is trying to get his job back. And he has a lot better chance of that after his acquittal. The suspect in this case, David Suazo, pleaded guilty to grand theft of a vehicle, fleeing a police officer, reckless driving, and driving on a suspended license. Suazo was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
Police have been under increased scrutiny in the age of smartphones and social media. It’s become much easier for the average person to start recording when they see alleged police brutality, and videos like this one often go viral when they appear to show something outrageous.
But that doesn’t always mean that police officers who’ve overstepped their authority are brought to justice. A police officer in Minnesota was acquitted in 2017 after he killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in June 2016. Castile’s death was livestreamed by his partner on Facebook and Castile appeared to follow the officer’s orders but was shot anyway. And a police officer in Pittsburgh was recently acquitted for shooting and killing an unarmed teenager, Antwon Rose II, in the back during a traffic stop. Video of the incident was captured by a neighbor across the street.
Just because there’s video that goes viral doesn’t mean that justice will be served. But Officer Figueroa’s attorney may have invented a new defense for cops to use in the future: the Facebook misdemeanor. The real crime, it seems, was people on the internet watching how the cops behave when they think no one is looking.