Nearly six years after 16-year-old Sebastian Gregory was shot by a Miami-Dade police officer who mistakenly thought he was reaching for a gun, his family’s lawsuit is being partially reinstated by a federal appeals court.
Three judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta found sufficient factual dispute about the officer’s actions that early morning of May 28, 2012, to warrant a jury trial.
Both sides are asking the full court to rehear their arguments: the officer seeking a full dismissal; Gregory’s family asking the county be reinstated as a defendant.
A federal judge in Miami had dismissed the case against the county and Officer Luis Perez, finding “it was reasonable (for Perez) to believe his life was in peril” before he opened fire on Gregory, who was walking along a Kendall sidewalk at 3:30 a.m. in what Perez felt was a suspicious manner.
Perez said he saw a bulge in Gregory’s pants that he thought was a firearm and – having previously arrested Gregory carrying a bat and two knives – feared for his life when, he said, Gregory made a quick move to touch the bulge. It turned out to be from a small bat Gregory said he carried for protection.
Gregory survived and claimed he followed Perez’s instructions to get on the ground, adding that he never moved his hands toward the bulge. But after Gregory gave an interview on Colombian television, Perez cited the report to argue Gregory had admitted he did, in fact, reach toward the bulge. Citing that interview, the trial court dismissed the case.
But the appellate panel found that interview, conducted and reported in Spanish, was not as definitive on that crucial point as the trial judge inferred.
“A jury issue exists as to whether Gregory moved his hands toward the bulge on his hip and thus posed an immediate risk of serious bodily harm to Officer Perez,” the appellate judges found, remanding the case for trial on three counts against Perez: excessive force, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The appeals court did agree that another count, claiming Perez’s action cost the parents the companionship and affection of their son, was properly dropped at the trial level.
Perez has already been cleared by the state attorney’s office, which found the use of force was justified. And in court papers, his position is clear: he did nothing wrong in reacting to what he perceived was a deadly threat from a known juvenile criminal suspect who had possessed weapons in the past.
If the case does go to trial, Sebastian Gregory will not be there to see it.
In January 2016, he left the family home, bought a bottle of alcohol, drank from it and hanged himself from a tree.