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Migrant charged in deputy's death files civil rights lawsuit, cites 'disability' of not knowing English

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, a 19-year-old Guatemalan migrant accused of killing a St. Johns County Sheriff's Office deputy, claims he was victim of deadly exchange and has filed civil rights lawsuit.

A Guatemalan migrant who is accused of killing a police officer last year is now leading a lawsuit against the deceased deputy’s estate, another law enforcement officer and the county, alleging he was the victim.

Virgilio Aguilar Mendez, 19, was charged with aggravated manslaughter of an officer after a scuffle involving several law enforcement officers in May 2023 left one of them dead. Attorneys representing Aguilar Mendez filed a new federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday, seeking compensatory damages from the incident as they claim the officers violated their client's civil rights.

According to the legal filing, St. Johns County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Michael Kunovich, who died as a result of the incident, and Lt. Jose Jimenez, another responding deputy, acted inappropriately in mistreating the migrant with multiple violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Florida Times-Union reported.

The lawyers specifically claim Aguilar Mendez’s limited ability to speak or understand English and Spanish constituted a disability. They allege he was also denied an interpreter at the scene and at the Sheriff’s Office, which would have allowed him to understand his Miranda rights.


Attorney Phillip Arroyo is representing Aguilar Mendez and his family. High-profile attorney Jose Baez has also joined his defense. The lawyers said their client primarily speaks Mam, a Guatemalan language.

The ADA describes physical or mental impairments that limit one or more major life activities but does not specifically name all the impairments that are covered.

The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office told Fox News Digital in a statement: "Our agency has no record of receiving notice of a lawsuit regarding this case."

Fox News Digital also reached out to Aguilar Mendez's defense but did not immediately receive a response.

The lawsuit comes nine months after Sgt. Kunovich, 52, collapsed from "medical distress" during the encounter with Aguilar Mendez, who was 18 at the time. The officer later died.

According to the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, Kunovich initially approached Aguilar Mendez about 9 p.m. May 19, suspecting him of a crime. Aguilar Mendez then continued walking away from the deputy.


"Aguilar Mendez was walking on a public sidewalk and speaking with his mother, which is not a crime," the lawsuit states. "When Sgt. Kunovich seized Aguilar Mendez, he stopped and did not try to flee."

The officer pursued Aguilar Mendez, who apologized in English, before continuing to resist the arrest.

According to the lawsuit, the migrant was confused and told the deputy: "I'm sorry, no speak, no speak English."

Other deputies, including those who spoke Spanish, responded to the scene, which ultimately saw the officers tasing the migrant and tackling him to the ground, Sheriff Robert Hardwick said at the time.

The sheriff’s office said the deputies attempted to restrain the migrant, who they claim was resisting arrest.

"While fighting on the ground, the suspect attempted to grab Sergeant Kunovich’s taser and continued to violently resist for approximately 6 minutes and 19 seconds," Hardwick added.

The deputies then handcuffed the migrant, but he managed to acquire a small pocketknife. The office did not say if the migrant attempted to use the weapon.

"Sergeant Kunovich collapsed moments after the subject was disarmed and relentless lifesaving measures were initiated by St. Johns County Fire Rescue and Flagler Health+ personnel. He was ultimately pronounced deceased shortly after transport to Flagler Hospital," the statement continued.


The migrant’s lawyers say their client was confused and was "unable to understand the brutality of the officers."

The scuffle was recorded by the officers’ bodycams and the lawyers point to the video as evidence of the migrant’s inability to understand or speak English.

"Without question, Aguilar Mendez did not understand the purpose or reason for the officers to pile on him, to physically strike him multiple times, and the repeated use of a taser by Sgt. Kunovich," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit claims Jimenez, too, did not make the migrant aware of his Miranda rights or attempt to obtain an interpreter for him.

The deputies "knew there was a substantial likelihood that Aguilar Mendez would be unable to communicate effectively, absent any interpretive aid for Mam, and ignored Aguilar Mendez’s statutory rights and SJCSO’s policies regarding limited English proficiency," the lawsuit reads.

Kunovich was a 25-year veteran of the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office and Sheriff Hardwick described him as a "valued member of the St. Johns County Office who passionately dedicated his career to keeping our community safe."

The suspect has pleaded not guilty to the manslaughter charge.

However, a judge has ruled Aguilar Mendez was incompetent and halted his trial due to his language barrier and his inability to understand the legal system, the Florida Times-Union reported.

He is being held in the Volusia County jail, where he is undergoing training to better understand his current legal situation. The judge will then have to determine if the manslaughter case can move forward.

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