For the second time in less than a year, former Boynton Beach cop Justin Harris is trying to convince a federal jury that he didn’t misuse his police powers.
In a trial that began Tuesday, Harris and the city are accused of violating the rights of 36-year-old Boynton Beach native Bennie Robinson five years ago when he was heading home after coaching a youth football team.
During the August 2013 traffic stop, Robinson claims Harris falsely arrested him on a charge of obstruction of justice merely for questioning why his then-girlfriend was being pulled over. The charge was dropped by prosecutors.
The civil trial comes less than a year after Harris in November was acquitted of criminal charges in connection with the 2014 beating of an unarmed passenger in a car that led Harris and eight other officers on a high-speed chase. Harris and another officer were cleared of allegations that kicked or hit Jeffrey Braswell after he was dragged from the car.
Two other Boynton cops — Sgt. Philip Antico and Officer Michael Brown — were convicted of charges linked to Braswell’s beating. Both were stripped of their law enforcement certifications and spent six months on house arrest.
While Harris left the agency in 2015 to open a gym with his wife, he keeps his police certificate active by continuing to volunteer as a reserve officer, said attorney Hugh Koerner, who represents Robinson.
Unlike what prosecutors described as the “beat down” of Braswell that was captured on camera by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office helicopter, there is no video of Robinson’s arrest. During opening statements, attorneys for Robinson, Harris and the city gave jurors vastly different accounts of the events leading up to Robinson’s arrest.
A volunteer coach for the East Boynton youth football league, Robinson was coming home from practice with two young players and his then-girlfriend, Shayla Valentine, when Harris and his partner, Officer Steven Mills, pulled over the van Valentine was driving, Koerner said.
Dismayed by the tone Mills used with Valentine, Robinson said, “Sir, you don’t have to talk to her like that,” Koerner told jurors.
Within seconds, Harris slapped Robinson in handcuffs, Koerner said. Robinson, who has since gotten a kidney transplant, asked officers not to touch his left arm because it had a port in it that was used when he received dialysis. Somehow, during the arrest it was injured, although not seriously, Koerner said.
Attorney Danna Clement, who represents Harris, said the behavior of Valentine and Robinson made the officers nervous. Both got out of the van, which is unusual, she said. Adding to their worries was that Northwest 4th Street, where the van was stopped, is known as a high-crime area, she said.
Contrary to Koerner’s account of the incident, Clement said Robinson yelled at Harris and angrily punched his fist into his hand. “It’s his actions that made it escalate,” Clement said. “Had (Robinson) not become aggressive toward the officers … none of this would have happened,” she said.
Koerner insisted Robinson, who works as a security guard and a barber, was arrested simply for expressing his views. “This is a true, pure First Amendment case,” he said. He didn’t say how much he is seeking. The trial is expected to conclude this week.