Man arrested at gunpoint in DeSantis voter fraud crackdown, video shows

In August, armed officers descended on homes of two men accused of illegally voting

Heavily armed Florida police officers descended on the homes of two men accused of illegally voting and arrested one of them at gunpoint as part of Governor Ron DeSantis’s crackdown on voter fraud, new body-camera footage obtained by the Guardian can reveal.

Both men were in their underwear, unarmed, and placed in handcuffs as police arrested them in front of their Miami-Dade county homes on 18 August.

“Let me put on my pants,” Ronald Miller, 58, said shortly before noon, when he opened the door to find police officers surrounding his home, their guns pointed at him. “What happened?” he asked as officers instructed him to come outside, their guns still trained on him.

As they placed him in handcuffs, agents noted that Robert Wood had taken a long time to answer the door when they knocked on it. “I was asleep,” he said.

The Guardian obtained video of both arrests through public records requests with the Miami-Dade police department, which assisted with executing warrants for both men.

Both Wood and Miller declined to be interviewed. Miller’s attorney, Robert Barrar, described the video of his client’s arrest as “abominable”.

“I think they’re trying to make an example of him because he’s Black. It’s horrible,” he said.

The videos add to mounting scrutiny over the arrests of 19 Floridians in August, including Miller and Wood, who were accused of voter fraud. Hours after Miller and Wood were arrested, DeSantis held a press conference, heralding the work of a new statewide agency tasked with investigating voter fraud, saying those accused would “pay the price”. Fourteen of those arrested were Black.

Voter fraud is exceedingly rare in the United States, but Republican lawmakers in several states, like Florida, have beefed up units charged with investigating it. Several voting experts said they could not recall seeing another case in which someone accused of voter fraud was arrested at gunpoint.

“We’ve seen a lot of arrests in recent months for voting issues here in the state, but I have not seen guns drawn in that manner,” said Neil Volz, the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which works with people with felony convictions to help them get their voting rights back. 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 for why such a heavy police presence was used.

“Arrest warrant planning and tactics are dictated by a number of factors, to include the subject’s criminal history and other officer and public safety concerns,” David Fierro, an FDLE spokesman, said in an email. Videos obtained by the Guardian and the Tampa Bay Times showing other people arrested in the sweep do not show a similarly heavily armed presence.

desantis behind podium with police behind him
Ron DeSantis announces arrests for voter fraud in August. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Miller and Wood were both convicted of second-degree murder more than 30 years ago, a crime that causes you to permanently lose your voting rights in Florida. They had both long completed their sentences for those charges and were not aware they were permanently barred from voting, their lawyers said.

When law enforcement decides to make an arrest, there’s a calculation that goes into how much force to use, said Bryanna Fox, a former FBI special agent and now criminologist at the University of South Florida. Officers will assess whether the person could be armed, whether there are other people who are dangerous, and the potential danger of the arrest.

“If you do that, and you see that there’s a very low risk of violence, showing up heavily armed is not what we would recommend,” she said. “If police suspected that they’ve committed a crime and now they’re going to make an arrest, which is a highly tense situation, they may think just an abundance of caution, we’re just going to be more heavily armed.”

Larry Davis, Wood’s lawyer, questioned why such a strong use of force was required 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 at his door with guns. Miller agreed to a similar interview.

Miller and Wood’s prior criminal histories doesn’t excuse the tremendous armed presence to detain people for a non-violent crime, said Blair Bowie, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center who specializes in voting rights issues for people with felonies.

“These folks have been through the criminal legal system. That system has 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 on the basis of their past crimes,” she said.

The operation to arrest 19 people appears to have come together relatively quickly just hours before DeSantis held his press conference announcing the charges. “They dumped this shit on me last minute,” video shows an officer saying as Miller sits in handcuffs. “I have to plan a three-county operation in four hours.”

Many of the defendants, including Wood and Miller, have said they were not warned 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 isn’t bringing a gun to a knife fight, it’s bringing a gun to a voter registration card fight. It’s an unbelievably grotesque abuse of power,” said Daniel Tilley, the legal director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s designed not just to stop those who might be ineligible, but not know it. But it’s also designed to intimidate voters who may be eligible to vote.”

Prosecutors claimed that Wood and Miller registered and voted knowing they were ineligible to do so. But both men told investigators they registered after being approached by canvassers ahead of the 2020 election, received a voter registration card in the mail, and had no idea they were ineligible.

The voter fraud charges against Wood and Miller were separately dismissed last year. Two different Miami-Dade county judges ruled that the statewide prosecutor, which is handling the cases, did not have the authority to prosecute them. A judge in Broward county dismissed another one of the 19 cases on similar grounds. Lawyers for the state are appealing those rulings.

Prosecutors have also dropped charges against another man who was charged in the sweep and reached a plea agreement that resulted in no additional punishment with another woman. The 14 other cases remain pending.

In 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that lifted the state’s lifetime voting ban for people with felonies, except for those with murder or sex-related convictions. State officials have not offered a theory as to how Miller and Wood would have known their second-degree murder convictions disqualified them from the amendment.

Florida Republicans then passed a law that required those with felonies to repay any money they owed before they could vote again. The requirement made it extremely difficult for those with a criminal history to figure out if they were eligible to vote, since the state does not have a centralized system to determine how much they owe.

State officials have also struggled to verify the eligibility of those with felony 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 it took them so long to flag ineligible people on the rolls.

Over the last few months, that confusion, combined with the threat of prosecution, has dissuaded people who are confused about their eligibility from risking voting, said Volz.

“The fact that people are unsure of their voting eligibility was the main driver for certain returning citizens not to vote this cycle. That system problem led to people being unsure, and then the nature of the arrest made things worse,” he said.

“The truth is it should scream to all of us that there’s a better way to make sure that we have election integrity.”


Sam Levine

The GuardianTramp

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