The family of a 15-year-old wounded by a Miami-Dade police officer last weekend after a chaotic early morning car chase and crash believes his shooting was unjustified, their attorney said Friday, and intends to fight criminal charges against the teen and sue the department.
Jarlens Princilis, an attorney for the family of Vito Corleone-Vinisee, said he was running away from the officer and posed no threat when he was struck from behind by a single bullet that has left him partially paralyzed.
“From a legal standpoint, I question if it was even a reasonable traffic stop,” said Princilis in the first comments from the teen’s family since the early Sunday morning incident in Northwest Miami-Dade. “And an officer can only use deadly force when he’s in fear of bodily injury or death. I don’t see that present when a teenager who is only 100 pounds is trying to run away from an officer. We don’t think the shooting is justified.”
A Miami-Dade police spokesman said the agency wouldn’t comment any further because of the ongoing investigation into the shooting by The Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But an arrest form obtained by The Herald earlier this week described the teen carrying a Glock pistol, though it does not indicate he pointed it at officers. Police also reported recovering a handgun from the scene and a high-powered rifle in the car that Corleone-Vinisee was in. Princilis said he has not yet asked the teen about the gun allegation.
The department has refused to identify the officer, but said he is a 29-year veteran. The president of the union representing the officer disputed the attorney’s claims and said the truth will come out at trial for Corleone-Vinisee, who faces a number of charges.
“Our officers were in fear for their lives and the safety of others. He [Corleone-Vinisee] will have his chance to explain why he was in the car, why he was running and why he had a gun,” said Steadman Stahl, president of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association. Florida law typically gives police officers broad latitude to open fire when they feel their lives or the lives of others might be at risk.
Corleone-Vinisee remained hospitalized Friday, though his outlook appeared to improve. Princilis, a Miami criminal defense attorney, said the teen can now lift his left arm about three inches off the bed and some feeling has returned to parts of his body below his neck.
While recovering, he’s been charged with possession of a firearm by a minor and resisting an officer without violence. He’s also facing charges for failing to appear at two court appearances late last year from 2020 arrests by different law enforcement agencies for attempted burglary and robbery.
The diminutive teen — police said he’s 4 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 120 pounds — had recently dropped out of a North Miami-Dade Charter school called Stellar Leadership Academy. Princilis said the family was still too devastated about the shooting to speak publicly.
He wound up shot after what began as a dispatch to be on the lookout for a stolen car in the area. Police last weekend had been beefed up in the county’s Northside District fearing retribution after a Brownsville rapper suspected of being involved in a series of shootings in the area was shot dead in his car in the south end of the county.
Corleone-Vinisee and two others were in a 2021 Dodge Challenger and on their way to what the teen told his attorney was a going to be a gathering of friends showing off cars after midnight on Sunday. Police, according to arrest reports and law enforcement sources, said the stolen vehicle, a Dodge Charger, was spotted next to the one containing Corleone-Vinisee.
When officers ordered the vehicles to stop, police said both cars took off and police gave chase. The Charger, the stolen vehicle, escaped. The Challenger eventually crashed through a fence and into a tree before coming to a stop. Corleone-Vinisee and the two other occupants ran. The other two got away. The teen was shot.
According to the teen and his family, as told by the attorney, what happened has been spun by police to put Corleone-Vinisee in a bad light. Police initially claimed Corleone-Vinisee was the driver but haven’t mentioned that since. They quickly publicized a picture of a handgun gun on the ground and noted that the teen had a criminal record, one that officers could not have known about before the shooting.
Princilis said his client was in the backseat and said the driver of the Challenger was never told to pull over and only sped off after noticing another car following them “in a dangerous neighborhood.” At that point, Princilis said, police activated their lights, but the driver continued to try and get away before hitting the fence and a tree at Northwest 56th Street and 22nd Avenue in Brownsville.
The attorney said his client said he never threatened police and believes the officer was within five feet of him when he was opening fire, striking him in the neck.
“My client was in the backseat of the vehicle. He was not the driver. He was the last person to get out and I believe he may have exited out the driver’s side door,” Princilis said. “At that point he tried to get away.”
Princilis didn’t dispute past charges against his client from other law enforcement agencies, but said the teen has yet to stand trial and hasn’t been convicted of anything. He also said the two counts of failing to appear in court were because of a change of address.
Besides defending his client in criminal court, Princilis said Miami-Dade police can expect a lawsuit in the near future.
“The family will certainly be seeking justice. The Miami-Dade Police Department needs to be held accountable for this wrongdoing and we want the FDLE [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] to keep investigating,” said the attorney. “The family intends on filing civil action against the Miami-Dade Police Department and we will fight the criminal charges.”