Miami Beach cops ‘conspired’ to cover up pepper spray attack on tourist, lawsuit alleges
Over a year ago, a Miami Beach police sergeant pepper-sprayed a New York woman who was filming officers, an incident caught on disturbing cellphone video. Officers later arrested her under a Miami Beach law that has been roundly criticized as being used to target Black visitors who video cops.
Attorneys for Mariyah Maple have now expanded their federal excessive-force lawsuit against Miami Beach to include a group of nine officers they say “conspired” to arrest the woman on July 25, 2021. The suit claims that officers, from the start, knew Maple committed no crime and some lied on police reports and misrepresented evidence — all to cover up for the officer who attacked her.
“Instead of helping her, four officers, two sergeants, a lieutenant, a captain, and a major conspired to arrest and prosecute Ms. Maple under ... a law they knew was unconstitutional,” reads the lawsuit.
The newly broadened lawsuit was filed late Monday, as the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office acknowledged it is still investigating Sgt. Vincent Stella, who pepper-sprayed Maple in an incident first reported by the Miami Herald. “The case is still under review,” an office spokesman said.
A Miami Beach spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request Monday for comment on the lawsuit.
The lawsuit poses yet another legal challenge to Miami Beach’s controversial ordinance, which was passed in June 2021 in the wake of a raucous spring break in South Beach. The law, part of a series of tough-on-crime measures enacted by the Miami Beach city commission, made it illegal to “approach or remain within 20 feet” of a Miami Beach police officer with the “intent to impede, provoke or harass” an officer engaged in lawful duties, after receiving a warning.
The Herald earlier reported that law was rushed into implementation so Miami Beach police officers could use it to control crowds in town for Rolling Loud, a popular hip-hop festival. Violation of the ordinance is punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to 60 days in jail.
The law came under sharp scrutiny after Miami Beach police used it to arrest two New York men during the beating of a third man at the Royal Palm hotel that same weekend. In the aftermath, five Miami Beach police officers wound up charged with battery after state prosecutors said they used excessive force in the arrest of the third man.
A Herald review of 13 ordinance arrests over that weekend showed all of them were of Black people, and most were of people filming officers.
Prosecutors, including Miami Beach’s own municipal prosecutor, declined to pursue charges in all of those cases, including that of Maple. Civil-rights groups blasted the law as vague and targeting people lawfully recording police officers under the First Amendment.
In a 14th case, the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance — but the city, after saying it would defend the law, ducked the legal fight by dropping the case.
Suit filed in federal court
In Maple’s civil case against the city and officers, a federal judge has allowed the suit to move forward.
The previous complaint named Miami Beach and Stella. The new complaint names officers Jorge Bercian, Kathleen Acevedo, Diego Rueda, Brandon Campos, Sgt. Jose Daniel Perez, Lt. Raymond Diaz, Capt. Steven Feldman and Major Enrique Doce.
Her lawyers, Sam Thypin-Bermeo and Chad Piotrowski, pieced together the detailed version of events after reviewing a cache of police body-camera footage and department reports turned over as part of the litigation, first filed in November 2021.
Maple, 28, is a nurse’s aide and mother of two from Buffalo, New York. She’d been visiting South Florida to celebrate her birthday.
According to the lawsuit, Maple had stopped on the sidewalk on the 700 block of Collins Avenue to video record officers who were arresting a teenager in the middle of the street. Maple was not part of any crowd, video showed, and “no officers would have looked at Ms. Maple standing on a well-lit sidewalk and thought that she was a threat,” the suit said.
A video clip shows that Stella grabbed his bicycle, approached Maple and said “back up, back up.” “Before Ms. Maple had a chance to move, he slammed the bicycle into [her] right arm and knee,” the suit said.
As Maple stepped backward, Stella sprayed her directly in the eyes with police-issued pepper spray — causing her to run away, “her eyes burned, her vision blurred, her throat closed, and her stomach churned,” the suit said.
Maple, according to the lawsuit, walked to her mother’s car about a block south as Sgt. Perez yelled out: “You’re impeding my investigation and if you stay here, you’re subject to arrest.”
(Perez was later arrested, and took a plea deal, for his role in the Royal Palm rough arrest.)
She might not have been arrested if Maple’s mother had not complained several minutes later to another officer, Bercian. She explained what happened and even showed him the video of Stella hitting and spraying her.
As Maple sat in her mother’s car and “writhed in agony,” Bercian called Stella — either on his cell or on the radio — to tell him that there was a video that existed of the incident, the lawsuit claims.
“Sgt. Stella told Officer Bercian that Ms. Maple had not violated any valid law but that he wanted him to arrest her because she had requested medical care and could sue him for excessive force,” the lawsuit alleges.
The suit alleges that Stella, Diaz, Perez, Doce, Feldman, Rueda, Acevedo and Campos immediately gathered and “came to an understanding” that Maple needed to be arrested to “cover up” the attack.
The suit also alleges that the arrest violated Florida law, which mandates that a municipal ordinance violation “shall be made immediately or in fresh pursuit” — and Bercian didn’t find Maple until five minutes later as she sat in a car “asking for help.”
Among the other allegations in the lawsuit:
▪ Stella, as Maple was being arrested, told her “you should have kept running” after he pepper-sprayed her.
▪ Bercian authored an arrest report that falsely claimed that Maple was part “of a large crowd” and “refused commands to disperse.” The report was signed off on by Sgt. Perez. The report also noted that the incident was captured on Stella’s body-worn camera, even though the city later admitted the sergeant had not turned on his camera.
▪ Lt. Diaz, in a “response to resistance” report, falsely claimed that Maple was arrested after she “returned” to the perimeter where she had originally been pepper-sprayed.
▪ The officers failed to properly get Maple medical treatment, and they broke a litany of internal department policies in their handling of the incident.
In her lawsuit, Maples alleges that she was humiliated in jail and that she has been unable to find work because of the arrest on her record.
“With her paralyzing fear of police officers and her reluctance to leave the house alone, Ms. Maple worries that she will never live the life of service and family that she had planned,” the lawsuit said.