72ºF

Police officer convicted of driving patrol car drunk gets new trial

Judges overturn verdict against officer found passed out in squad car

photo

MIAMI-DADE, Fla. – Four years ago, a Miami-Dade police officer was accused of falling asleep in his squad car. He was half-dressed. An officer said he smelled alcohol when he tried to wake him.

The patrol car was in the middle of a West Kendall intersection Dec. 6, 2011. The gear was in drive. But somehow, he passed out with his foot on the brake, an arrest report said. 

Officer Fernando Villa, who was 32 at the time, was not taken to jail. He refused a breathalyzer three times, and was allowed to go home that night with a promise to appear in court. Sgt. Richard Zahalka and other officers said there was a strong odor of alcohol.

Judge Bill Altfield sentenced him to 10 days in jail in 2014. But he hasn't spent one day behind bars, because he appealed the case. And as the city got ready to celebrate New Year's Eve, a panel of appellate judges reversed the conviction. Villa is getting a new trial. 

The prosecution's mistake, according to Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mavel Ruiz, was "impermissible burden shifting."  This is when the burden of proof shifts from the State to the defendant in following the basic principle that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty. 

"The state shifted the burden to the defense to prove that there was a medical condition ... absent that proof, he should be convicted," the court's opinion says. 

Villa refused a breathalyzer and field sobriety exercises. There weren't medical records to support Villa's claim that he was having other health issues. Prosecutors called the claim an excuse. 

DOCUMENT: Read the court's opinion on Villa's case

 

OFFICER'S PAST

When officers found Villa in the West Kendall Hammocks district patrol car, he was off duty.

But months earlier when he played a part in the killing of Rosendo Betancourt Garcia, 39, a confidential informant, he was on duty.  

Villa was part of a Special Response Team luring three suspected violent burglars into an abandoned home in Redland.

When the officers moved to catch them, an officer in the helicopter said, "All right, I have two subjects running west, running west into the trees, running west into the trees."

Another officer responded, "OK, get in there with the lights. Light it up! Light it up!"

An infra-red video shows Garcia raising his hands to surrender. He dropped his weapon when he was lying down and Sgt. Manuel Malgor ordered him to roll over on his belly and shot him, prosecutors said. Malgor said he thought Garcia was going to grab a weapon. 

The officers also killed Jorge Lemus, 39, Antonio Andrew, 36, and Roger Gonzalez-Valdez Sr., 52. Prosecutors decided not to file charges. Earlier this year, Miami-Dade County paid $700,000 to Garcia's family. 

 


About the Author: