Two police officers in Miami arrested an undocumented immigrant and then extorted his family for $2,400 under the pretense that they would set him free, according to the man's lawyer. The man, Moisés David Escoto Rojas, is now in federal custody facing deportation after an arrest for traffic tickets, after his mother allegedly paid the officers to release him, the lawyer, John de Leon, told BuzzFeed News.
De Leon officially notified the City of Miami Police Department of his intention to file suit, alleging kidnapping, extortion, and other claims. Such a notice is legally required for lawsuits against the police in Florida. De Leon is also considering filing a federal civil rights suit.
A City of Miami Police Department spokesperson said there is an ongoing internal affairs investigation into Escoto's case. She declined to comment further, citing the open investigation.
On the morning of June 9, Escoto, a 33-year-old construction worker and bathroom remodeler, was pulled over by two police officers while driving to work, according to the notice of claim. Because he is undocumented, Escoto did not have a driver's license, an offense for which the officers detained him. The claim alleges that while one officer drove Escoto around Miami-Dade County for hours, another began what de Leon described as an extended "shakedown." The allegations were first reported by El Nuevo Herald.
The officer, who was dressed in plainclothes with a badge hanging around her neck, allegedly went to Escoto's mother's home and told her about her son's arrest. She then allegedly demanded money in exchange for setting Escoto free.
Escoto's mother called friends and family in a panic and scrounged up $2,400, de Leon said. "The officers received the money, then they took my client to jail."
Escoto eventually bonded out of jail, but when he went to court in August to contest the traffic tickets that resulted from the car stop, de Leon said, he was arrested by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who was waiting outside the courthouse. De Leon alleges in his notice of claim that Escoto's arresting officer -- one of the two involved in the alleged extortion -- arranged to have the ICE agent appear at the court to make the arrest.
De Leon alleges that racial profiling motivated the initial traffic stop after which Escoto was allegedly extorted, so Escoto should never have been detained in the first place. "All of these immigration actions came as a result of the unlawful actions of the cops," he said.
De Leon said Escoto has no criminal record and had no immigration holds at the time of his arrest. A search of Miami criminal court databases revealed no offenses for Escoto.
President Obama has said that when it comes to deportations, his administration is focused on going after "folks who are criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they're trying to figure out how to feed their families."
Escoto's mother, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, told BuzzFeed News that Escoto has two young daughters in Central America who depend on the money he sends home. She too depends partly on Escoto's income and care. "He looks after me and I look after him," she said in Spanish. "This situation is very difficult for me. It's very painful."
Escoto's mother added that she is naturally inclined to trust law enforcement. When the officer first contacted her about her son's arrest, she said, "I genuinely believed they were trying to help me."
"But it was a scam," she said.
Immigrant advocates in Florida say that Escoto's case is emblematic of the vulnerability of the undocumented to abuses by many sectors of society, including law enforcement.
"It's a little shocking, but I guess it's not surprising, given that immigrants are such easy prey for bad actors," said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based advocacy group Americans for Immigrant Justice.
At the heart of the problem, Little said, is the fact that undocumented immigrants rarely report crimes against them for fear that they will be deported. "That's been a problem for decades."