By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - The family of an 18-year-old graffiti artist who died after being shocked by a stun gun during a police chase earlier this month sued the city of Miami Beach on Tuesday for damages, alleging use of excessive force.
Israel Hernandez-Llach died on August 6 after police shocked him with a Taser as he ran away from officers who caught him spray-painting the wall of a shuttered McDonald's.
The lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Miami-Dade County court alleges that Miami Beach Police Department officers allegedly used "unnecessary, excessive and unconstitutional force" including the use of a Taser on Hernandez Llach.
Noting that the young, Colombian-born artist was slightly built and not carrying a weapon "officers had no reasonable basis to fear for their own safety or the safety of the public," the suit asserted. It also said officers celebrated by high-fiving one another as the victim lay on the ground dead or dying.
As a result "emergency medical attention was withheld with reckless disregard for the life and safety" of Hernandez-Llach, according to the complaint.
"A Taser is a weapon, a weapon that inflicts excruciating, incapacitating pain on the subject. It carries with it a risk of serious injury and death," Todd McPharlin, an Hernandez-Llach family lawyer, told reporters.
He spoke on the steps of a county courthouse joined by members of the family wearing black and holding hands. Israel's mother, Jacqueline Llach, began crying after he started speaking.
The family is seeking undisclosed damages. Attorneys for the family say Hernandez-Llach would likely not have been prosecuted over the spray-painting and would have probably faced a punishment of community service for a second degree misdemeanor.
Miami Beach Police Chief Raymond Martinez, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, has said that Hernandez-Llach was confronted by officers after vandalizing private property and ignored their commands to stop running.
He said Jorge Mercado, the officer who shocked the young artist with the Taser, acted according to policy in dealing with someone who had resisted arrest.
Once in custody, Hernandez-Llach, who was known as "Reefa" and whose work had appeared in some Miami art galleries, showed signs of medical distress and was pronounced dead soon after, according to police statements.
A formal cause of death has not been established in the case pending toxicology results.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is conducting an independent review of the police investigation into the death.
Florida's state attorney and the medical examiner for Miami-Dade County are also reviewing the case, officials said.
The Hernandez-Llach family also accuse Martinez and the city of failing to properly train and discipline the police officers involved.
Miami Beach police have come under scrutiny in recent years for a series of shootings and improper conduct, including the death of a 22-year-old man who was shot 16 times by police two years ago during a Memorial Day weekend hip-hop festival.
Mercado was named in several prior complaints according to police Internal Affairs reports obtained by Reuters. He was disciplined for failing a drug test in 2011 but was exonerated in several other cases, including punching a man in the face during an off-duty fight in a men's room in 2007.
He was also accused along with three other officers of falsely arresting and tasing two New York tourists in their Miami Beach hotel room in 2008. That case was closed after the two alleged victims withdrew their complaint due to lack of witness testimony, according to police records.
(Editing by David Adams and David Gregorio)