Broward News

Fort Lauderdale Approves $30,000 Settlement to Man Who Fought Charge of Resisting an Officer

In 2012, Fort Lauderdale police arrested Michael Cunniff, now 33, for resisting an officer without violence. In a lawsuit Cunniff later filed, he says he'd gotten locked out of his own home, and a neighbor had mistakenly called the cops, thinking there was some sort of disturbance. Cunniff claims that when police arrived, they barged into his home illegally, beat the living pulp out of him, dragged him half-naked out onto the front lawn with his "masculine parts" exposed, and later put "false statements" in their arrest reports, all for no reason.

Rather than continuing to duke it out in court, at last night's city commission meeting, the city of Fort Lauderdale approved handing Cunniff a $30,000 settlement check.

According to Cunniff's suit, he had attended the Fontainebleau Live concert at Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Hotel on New Year's Day,  2012. Cunniff took a taxi back to his home at the Solmar on Sixth apartments in Fort Lauderdale, only to find that he'd been locked out. 

After trying the front door, Cunniff then walked around to the back and began causing a "commotion" in order to wake up his roommate. The noise worked, but it also frightened neighbor Alexandra Lobitz, who called 911. According to the suit, she reported the incident as a possible domestic dispute, which it wasn't.

Two Fort Lauderdale cops — Christie Schade and Junell Shields — arrived at the home early January 2. Cunniff had just taken a shower and answered the door wearing only a pair of athletic shorts. He claimed in his suit that the police later stated, "We are not here for the marijuana," despite the fact that the call was for a domestic dispute and that no drugs were ever found on the scene.

Cunniff said the cops then barged into his home without his consent. Cunniff told his roommate, Christopher Kapalka, to try and call the Broward Sheriff's Office for backup. 

“Are you incoherent?" one of the officers allegedly said. "We are the Fort Lauderdale Police.”

“I know you are the Fort Lauderdale police, and nobody invited you into our home," Cunniff claims he said from his kitchen. "I told you [to] get out.” 

“Oh, a real smart ass,” Schade then said, according to the suit. She turned to her fellow officer. "You think I should arrest him?"

The suit says the cops yanked him from the kitchen and began using "knee strikes" against him. He says officers also punched him in the face while shouting, "Stop resisting!"

Cunniff claims he remained on the ground on his elbows and knees, with his forehead to the floor. Two more cops — Steven Higgins and Christopher Troiano — then entered the apartment. Troiano, the complaint says, used more knee strikes on Cunniff, while Higgins kicked Cunniff in the face outright, "damaging" one of Cunniff's teeth. By that point, Cunniff's roommate had started filming the incident with his cell phone.

"Turn it off!" the suit says the cops shouted. They then allegedly handcuffed Cunniff and dragged him outside only for his athletic shorts to fall down, "thereby exposing [Cunniff’s] masculine parts to his neighbors."

The suit then accuses Schade and Shields of signing police reports with "false statements" and "material ommissions" in them:

The police reports co-signed by Defendant SCHADE and Defendant SHIELDS for submission to prosecuting authorities contained false statements, insofar as the police reports falsely alleged that during the handcuffing of Plaintiff, he braced and tensed his arms, when in fact, as Defendant SCHADE and Defendant SHIELDS knew, Plaintiff never physically resisted or opposed any officer, including Defendant SCHADE and Defendant SHIELDS, other than in self defense, by placing his right hand against his face in an effort to limit the physical damage and injury inflected [sic] by Defendant HIGGINS during Defendant HIGGINS’ unlawful and excessive use of force against Plaintiff.

Cunniff was charged solely with "resisting an officer without violence" without being accused of any other crimes. Cunniff's charges were eventually dropped entirely in 2015.

Cunniff then sued the city and cops for conducting an illegal search, false arrest, excessive force, invasion of privacy, battery, and malicious prosecution on October 29, 2015. After more than six months, the city has now decided to settle the case.

Reached by phone, Cunniff declined to comment except to stress that he still respects police. "In no way have my feelings changed toward the city of Fort Lauderdale," he said, "or authority figures in general. Nothing was affected from that perspective."

Before the settlement was approved at last night's city commission meeting, longtime gadfly Charlie King stood as the motion's lone commenter.

"There would be less of these if we had body cameras on the police force," he said.