UFC star Conor McGregor, who last year pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in New York, faces a new round of legal troubles that could complicate his ability to fight in the United States.
On Monday, Miami police arrested the 30-year-old Irish fighter after he allegedly smashed and dispossessed the phone of Ahmed Abdirzak, a 22-year-old man. McGregor was charged with two felonies, strong arm robbery and criminal mischief. Abdirzak, who is a resident of London and was visiting Miami on vacation, has sued McGregor in Miami–Dade County Court for battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
A smashed phone travels five miles from its rightful owner
According to the police’s arrest affidavit, both McGregor and Abdirzak left Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel at around 5 a.m. Abdirzak’s complaint, which is authored by his attorney, Santiago Cueto, asserts that Abdirzak was waiting for his rental car at the hotel valet when he recognized McGregor standing near him.
Abdirzak explains that he then pulled out his smart phone in hopes of snapping a photo of the famed fighter. McGregor, at least from Abdirzak’s narrative, did not verbally object to having his photo taken. Instead, McGregor walked towards Abdirzak and, in what Abdirzak describes as a deceptive move, reached out his left hand as if he wanted to greet Abdirzak. This led Abdirzak to believe that McGregor viewed the situation as one where a celebrity wanted to meet a fan. So, Abdirzak reached out with his own hand, expecting a positive embrace.
As Abdirzak tells it, McGregor didn’t greet him. Instead, he grabbed and held his arm so tight that he could not get away. McGregor then became even more visibly enraged with Abdirzak.
It was obviously too late for Abdirzak to realize that McGregor didn’t want him to take that photo.
The two men then jostled briefly over possession of the phone. As McGregor tried to grab the phone, he “slapped” it to the ground, per the arrest affidavit (Abdirzak’s complaint more dramatically says that McGregor “punched” the phone).
Whether Abdirzak’s phone was slapped or punched, one thing is clear: the phone crashed onto the ground. McGregor—who is only 5’9”, 154 pounds but is extremely strong—then repeatedly stomped on the phone, thereby breaking it. McGregor is also accused of picking up the smashed phone, placing it into his pocket and walking away from the scene with his security guards. At around 5:20 a.m., McGregor was arrested at a beachfront mansion located less than five miles from the hotel. Shortly thereafter, he was booked at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center and quickly posted bond.
TMZ Sports obtained a video that shows a portion of the incident. In the video, McGregor stomps on a phone. Abdirzak appears to be audible as someone is heard pleading, “let me get my phone, man.” As with any video that only reveals a portion of an incident and from only one vantage point, it’s not clear how other involved persons—including Abdirzak—behaved before and after the video’s sequence. It’s also worth noting that McGregor has not addressed the incident, meaning only one side has been heard (McGregor’s attorney, Samuel Rabin, dismisses the incident and its accompanying lawsuit as “nothing more than a quick effort seeking a payday”).
McGregor faces two felony charges
Although a phone-smashing incident in which no one suffered physical injuries may not seem worthy of felony-level offenses, the law says otherwise.
Florida Statute 812.13 describes felony robbery as intentionally dispossessing another person of property and accomplishing that dispossession through force or placing the victim in fear. The police charged McGregor with robbery because he took away Abdirzak’s phone for a period of time. This occurred after McGregor picked up the shattered phone from the ground and brought it with him to the beach estate. Also, by physically confronting Abdirzak, McGregor used force and allegedly placed Abdirzak in fear.
McGregor has been charged with second-degree robbery, rather than first-degree robbery. This is because he carried no firearm or deadly weapon while grabbing the phone. Still, a second-degree charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
McGregor’s other charge, criminal mischief, falls under Florida Statute 806.13. It refers to willfully destroying another person’s property. Criminal mischief is classified as a misdemeanor if the resulting property damage totals $999 or less. However, the charge becomes a felony when the damage is $1,000 or more. McGregor allegedly caused $1,000 in damage, meaning he has been charged with felony criminal mischief. The felony-level version of criminal mischief carries a maximum of five years in prison.
McGregor’s potential defenses and limitations to those defenses
Witness testimony and video evidence will prove instrumental in determining the accuracy of the descriptive narratives offered by the police and Abdirzak. Assuming those narratives prove mostly accurate, McGregor will need to offer an exonerating explanation for why he took Abdirzak’s phone with him.
One potentially exculpating explanation would be that Abdirzak invaded McGregor’s privacy and had no right to take photos. McGregor could then argue that he took the phone in order to delete any unlawful photos that had already been taken and to prevent additional photos.
Like other states’ laws, Florida law prohibits invading another person’s privacy. An impermissible invasion can arise in the form of appropriating another person’s name or likeness without their permission. Florida Statute 540.08 makes it illegal to “publish, print, display or otherwise publicly use for purposes of trade or for any commercial or advertising purpose the name, portrait, photograph, or other likeness of any natural person without the express written or oral consent.” An illegal invasion can also occur when a person intrudes on the solitude of a person, or on their private affairs, in a way that a reasonable person would regard as offensive.
If McGregor leads with an invasion-of-privacy-type defense, he’ll probably encounter some difficulties.
For one, Florida law permits publication of names and likenesses of persons who are part of “any bona fide news report,” at least when those reports aren’t used for advertising purposes. Bona fide news reports involve topics or persons of “current and legitimate public interest.” McGregor, who has 7.5 million Twitter followers and is reportedly worth in excess of $100 million, is one of the world’s most recognizable MMA fighters. His whereabouts and lifestyle habits have become sources of news reports.
To that point, McGregor is likely accustomed to being photographed by fans and other onlookers while in public settings. A random, nearby person wanting to take his photo is probably an event that often occurs in McGregor’s life. Also, McGregor’s expectation of privacy in a five-star Miami Beach hotel’s entrance area—which is public and likely often congested, especially since it houses multiple bars and clubs—is much less than it would be in a hotel room and probably less than in a hotel hallway or adjoining restaurant.
In addition, the First Amendment to some degree protects the right to photograph celebrities. It guarantees freedom of speech and expression—terms that go beyond spoken and written words and extend to visual representations. Indeed, courts applying the First Amendment have made it clear that journalists possess broad rights to report on persons of public interest. This is one of the reasons why entertainment and tabloid news companies can typically report on celebrities’ lives without fear of legal consequences.
There are, of course, exceptions. In 2016, a Florida jury held that Gawker invaded the privacy of Hulk Hogan by publishing an edited video of Hogan having sex. The Hogan ruling, however, seems far afield from McGregor’s situation. The McGregor-Abdirzak incident involves a relatively ordinary event: a person trying to take a photo of a celebrity in a public area.
A more relevant exception could relate to the fact that Abdirzak does not appear to be a journalist. Courts have been more restrictive of unwanted photographs when the photographs aren’t intended for news reporting. This was evidenced in Porat v. Lincoln Towers Community Association, where a court found that the First Amendment did not grant a person the right to take a photo when the photo was only for personal use. Although it’s not clear how Abdirzak intended to use a photo of McGregor, if the intent was for personal use, McGregor would probably have a better privacy argument.
Even if McGregor can persuade a court that Abdirzak invaded his privacy, McGregor’s response to that invasion could still be regarded as needlessly violent and hardly a valid justification for grabbing and breaking the phone. Less hostile alternatives, such as simply telling Abdirzak not to take a photo, altering the valet attendant or hotel security of his disapproval of Abdirzak or even calling the police were presumably possibilities in that situation.
McGregor’s attorneys will also object to the criminal mischief charge. One source of objection will be the supposed value of the phone.
According to the arrest affidavit, Abdirzak claims the phone is “valued at $1,000.” The phone being valued at $1,000 instead of $999 may sound immaterial—$1 isn’t a lot of money—but it is very important in terms of the law. In Florida, criminal mischief that causes property damage of more than $200 but less than $1,000 is a misdemeanor with a possible jail sentence of one year, whereas criminal mischief that causes property damage of $1,000 or more is a felony with a potential prison sentence of five years.
Although the brand and edition of Abdirzak’s smart phone aren’t unknown, it is obviously a used item and not worth as much as a brand-new version. Most brand new versions of smart phones cost under $1,000. If the phone is worth less than $1,000 and if prosecutors intend to continue to prosecute the criminal mischief charge as a felony, prosecutors would need to show that Abdirzak used the phone for business and lost revenue as a result of it becoming inoperable.
Potential immigration consequences and impact on McGregor’s defense
Last July, McGregor’s attorneys negotiated a plea deal with New York prosecutors to resolve multiple charges. A few months earlier, McGregor had been charged for his prominent role in a violent incident that occurred during UFC 223 Media Day. Specifically, McGregor had thrown a hand dolly through the window of a bus and caused several fighters to suffer facial and other injuries. The incident stemmed from McGregor’s longstanding feud with Russian MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov, with whom McGregor had an infamous “post-fight” brawl in UFC 229 in Las Vegas last October.
Among McGregor’s New York charges were two felony criminal mischief charges. Had he been convicted of a felony connected to a violent act, McGregor could have faced serious immigration consequences.
By all accounts, McGregor is a citizen of Ireland. This means that he is in the U.S. through either a green card (which would make him a permanent U.S. resident) or a nonimmigrant visa (which would allow him to travel in the U.S. for limited periods of time). Either way, a conviction for a violent felony can lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to seek deportation of a non-citizen or render that person inadmissible for future re-entry. Homeland Security also has significant discretion in determining which types of offenses ought to lead to deportation or inadmissibility.
McGregor avoided immigration fallout in New York by pleading guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. He was punished with mandatory community service and enrollment in anger management courses. The plea deal was designed to ensure that McGregor avoided jail and any adverse immigration ramifications. It worked.
McGregor’s legal team will likely seek the same outcome in response to the Miami Beach incident. Expect them to try to negotiate a plea deal whereby McGregor pleads guilty to a misdemeanor or accepts pretrial diversion, whereby McGregor would acknowledge responsibility for his acts, make restitution and, in return, the criminal charges would be dropped. However, pretrial diversion is normally reserved for first-time, non-violent offenders of misdemeanor offenses. Given the nature of the incident, the felony-level charges and McGregor’s past legal issues, a judge may be reluctant to find McGregor eligible for diversion.
The civil lawsuit and potential endorsement consequences
Abdirzak has sued McGregor, arguing that McGregor committed battery by holding his arm and punching the phone. Abdirzak also says that McGregor caused him to suffer “severe emotional distress.”
Abdirzak’s lawsuit is far less important for McGregor than are the criminal charges. The worst-case scenario with the lawsuit is that McGregor goes to trial, loses and is ordered to pay Abdirzak some amount of money. The worst-case scenario with the criminal charges is that McGregor goes to trial, is convicted and is then imprisoned, deported or both.
The most likely outcome with the lawsuit is that McGregor reaches an out-of-court settlement with Abdirzak. In a settlement, McGregor would agree to pay Abdirzak a dollar amount and, in exchange, Abdirzak would contractually relinquish any legal claims that he has against McGregor. A settlement would likely also lead to Abdirzak becoming unwilling to testify against McGregor in criminal proceedings. Such a development would make prosecuting McGregor more difficult since the victim would become unavailable to speak to jurors (however, the case would not become impossible to prosecute since there is video evidence and other witnesses).
McGregor’s conduct could also empower his endorsed companies to invoke so-called “morals clauses.” These clauses allow the endorsed company to terminate or suspend an endorsement deal on account of the endorser bringing disrepute on either himself/herself or the company. McGregor has signed endorsement deals with several major companies, including Monster Energy and Reebok. It seems unlikely that McGregor will lose endorsements over the Miami Beach incident. Part of his image—and brand-appeal—is his toughness, outspokenness and brashness. A company that signs McGregor to an endorsement deal knows what it is getting into and shouldn’t later act surprised.
Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.