Heavily armed Florida law enforcement officers raided the homes of two men accused of voting illegally and arrested one of them at gunpoint as part of Governor Ron DeSantis’ crackdown on voter fraud, new body camera footage obtained by the Guardian has revealed.
The two men were in their underwear, unarmed and handcuffed as police arrested them outside their Miami-Dade County home on Aug. 18.
“Let me put my pants on,” said Ronald Miller, 58, just before noon when he opened the door to find police surrounding his home, guns trained on him. “What happened?” he asked when the cops instructed him to leave, their guns still pointed at him.
When putting him in handcuffs, the agents noticed that Robert Wood had taken a long time to answer the door when there was a knock on it. “I was sleeping,” he said.
The Guardian obtained video of both arrests through public records requests to the Miami-Dade Police Department, which assisted in executing warrants for the two men.
Both Wood and Miller declined to be interviewed. Miller’s lawyer, Robert Barrar, described the video of his client’s arrest as “abhorrent”.
“I think they are trying to make an example of him because he is black. He is horrible, ”he said.
The videos heighten scrutiny over the arrests of 19 Florida residents in August, including Miller and Wood, accused of voter fraud. Hours after Miller and Wood were arrested, DeSantis held a press conference, announcing the work of a new state agency tasked with investigating voter fraud, saying that the accused would “pay the price”. Fourteen of the prisoners were black.
Voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States, but Republican lawmakers in several states, including Florida, have beefed up units tasked with investigating it. Several polling experts said they did not remember seeing another case in which someone accused of voter fraud was arrested at gunpoint.
“We’ve seen a lot of arrests over the last few months for voting issues here in the state, but I’ve never seen guns drawn like this,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which works with people with criminal convictions to help them recover. their voting rights. The videos, he said, were “alarming and heartbreaking”.
A spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), the agency that oversaw the arrests, did not provide details as to why such a strong police presence was used.
“Arrest warrant planning and tactics are dictated by a number of factors, including the subject’s criminal history and other concerns of law enforcement and public safety,” David Fierro, a spokesman for the FDLE, said in an email. Videos obtained by the Guardian and the Tampa Bay Times showing other people trapped in the sweep do not show a similar heavily armed presence.
Miller and Wood were convicted of second-degree murder more than 30 years ago, a crime that causes you to permanently lose your voting rights in Florida. Both had long served their sentences on those charges and were unaware that they were permanently barred from voting, their lawyers said.
When law enforcement decides to make an arrest, there’s a calculation of how much force to use, said Bryanna Fox, a former FBI special agent and now a criminologist at the University of South Florida. Officers will assess whether the person may be armed, whether there are other dangerous people, and the potential danger of arrest.
“If you do this and you see that there is a very low risk of violence, we don’t recommend showing up heavily armed,” she said. “If the police suspect that they have committed a crime and are now going to make an arrest, which is a very tense situation, they can only think about being very cautious, we will only be more heavily armed.”
Larry Davis, Wood’s attorney, questioned why such a strong use of force was necessary to detain his client for a non-violent crime. He noted that Wood had consented to a voluntary interview with FDLE agents just 10 days before police showed up on his doorstep with guns. Miller agreed to a similar interview.
Miller and Wood’s criminal background does not justify the tremendous armed presence to detain people for a non-violent crime, said Blair Bowie, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center who specializes in voting rights issues for people with crimes.
“These people have gone through the criminal legal system. That system deemed them safe and eligible to live in their community and integrate and be citizens again. So that kind of force and show of force and drama is not justified based on his past crimes,” she said.
The operation to arrest 19 people appears to have happened relatively quickly just hours before DeSantis held his press conference announcing the charges. “They threw that shit at me at the last minute,” the video shows a police officer saying as Miller is handcuffed. “I have to plan an operation in three counties in four hours.”
Many of the defendants, including Wood and Miller, said they were not advised that they were ineligible, received voter registration cards in the mail, and believed they could vote. Voting rights advocates see the cases as a thinly-veiled effort to intimidate people from voting.
“This is not bringing a gun to a knife fight, this is bringing a gun to a title fight. It is an unbelievably grotesque abuse of power,” said Daniel Tilley, general counsel for the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s designed not just to stop those who may be ineligible but don’t know it. But it is also designed to intimidate voters who may be eligible to vote.”
Prosecutors alleged that Wood and Miller registered and voted knowing they were ineligible to do so. But the two men told investigators they registered after being approached by election officials before the 2020 election, received a voter card in the mail and had no idea they were ineligible.
The election fraud charges against Wood and Miller were separately dismissed last year. Two different Miami-Dade County judges ruled that the state attorney, who is handling the cases, did not have the authority to prosecute them. A Broward County judge dismissed another of the 19 cases on similar grounds. State attorneys are appealing those decisions.
Prosecutors also dropped the charges against another man who was indicted in the sweep and reached a plea deal that did not result in any further punishment for another woman. The other 14 cases remain pending.
In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that lifted the state’s lifetime ban on voting for people with felonies, except for those with murder or sex convictions. State officials have not offered a theory of how Miller and Wood would have known that their second-degree murder convictions disqualified them from the amendment.
Florida Republicans passed a law that required those with crimes to return all money owed before they could vote again. The requirement made it extremely difficult for those with a criminal record to find out if they were eligible to vote, as the state does not have a centralized system for determining how much they owe.
State officials have also struggled to verify the eligibility of those with criminal convictions. Some of the 19 people charged were not notified of their ineligibility until 2022, years after they registered. State officials have yet to explain why they took so long to flag ineligible people on the lists.
In recent months, that confusion, combined with the threat of prosecution, has dissuaded people who are confused about their eligibility from risking voting, Volz said.
“The fact that people were not sure of their eligibility to vote was the main factor in certain returning citizens not voting this cycle. This problem in the system made people feel insecure and then the nature of the prison made things worse,” he said.
“The truth is, it should scream to all of us that there is a better way to ensure that we have electoral integrity.”
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