Florida deputy mistakes falling acorn for gunshot, fires into patrol car with Black man inside

Feb 15, 2024, 10:29 AM

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A Florida sheriff’s deputy mistook the sound of an acorn hitting his patrol vehicle for a gunshot and fired multiple times at the SUV where a handcuffed Black man was sitting in the backseat, officials said.

The man, who was being questioned about stealing his girlfriend’s car, was not injured during the Nov. 12 shooting. He was taken into custody but released without being charged. The officer who initiated the shooting resigned.

The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s office released the body camera video and an internal affairs report this week, addressing the acorn for the first time.

Investigators viewing the video from Deputy Jesse Hernandez’s body camera saw an acorn falling just before shots were fired, an internal affairs report by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office concluded. The acorn bounced off the patrol vehicle’s roof.

That morning, Hernandez, a sergeant and another deputy had responded to a call from a woman who said her boyfriend had stolen her car and was sending her threatening messages. The woman told deputies that the man had a weapon, the report said.

Police detained the boyfriend and searched his car after handcuffing him and placing him the back of Hernandez’s patrol car.

That’s where he was when the acorn hit the vehicle.

As Hernandez approached the passenger side door of his patrol car, he heard a popping sound which he later told investigators he perceived to be a gunshot. And he said he believed he had been hit.

“He began yelling “shots fired” multiple times, falling to the ground and rolling,” the sheriff’s report said. “He fired into the patrol car.”

Sgt. Beth Roberts heard the gunfire and Hernandez’s screams, and began firing into the car as well, the report said.

While the county’s state attorney’s office found no probable cause for criminal charges, the sheriff’s internal affairs investigation determined Hernandez’s use of force was “not objectively reasonable.” Hernandez resigned on Dec. 4, the sheriff’s office said.

Roberts’ use of deadly force was found to be reasonable, and she was exonerated, the report found.

Sheriff Eric Aden said he realizes the situation was “traumatic” for the suspect, and his office has incorporated the shooting into training for other deputies.

He also said he does not believe that Hernandez acted with malice.

“Though his actions were ultimately not warranted, we do believe he felt his life was in immediate peril and his response was based off the totality of circumstances surrounding this fear,” Aden said.

Reviews of the case by the sheriff’s criminal investigations division and the county’s state attorney’s office found no probable cause for criminal charges for Hernandez, who started with the agency in January 2022.

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Florida deputy mistakes falling acorn for gunshot, fires into patrol car with Black man inside