Detroit, MI – A judge on Tuesday dismissed felony charges against a Detroit police corporal who was accused of having fired rubber bullets at photographers during the George Floyd riots.
The incident occurred late on May 31, 2020 during violent protests in downtown Detroit several days after Floyd died in the custody of the Minneapolis police, Deadline Detroit reported.
Officers had to use tear gas and less-lethal munitions to disperse the violent crowd earlier in the evening after an unlawful assembly was declared.
Rioters threw fireworks, bricks, and rocks at officers handling crowd control, MLive reported.
Detroit police made 84 arrests before the streets started to clear.
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office said most of the protesters had left the area when 32-year-old Detroit Police Corporal Daniel Debono, who was working crowd control that night, encountered several people who were attempting to cross at Woodward and State Street, Deadline Detroit reported.
Freelancer Matt Hatcher, who was shooting pictures for Getty Images, Seth Herald, who was shooting for AFP, and MLive photographer Nicole Hester said they were on their way back to their car when they asked two officers at an intersection for permission to cross the street, MLive reported.
“We were just trying to leave the scene,” Hester recalled. “We weren’t doing anything. We weren’t charging at them.”
The three claimed to have put up their hands in the air and identified themselves to the officers as members of the press, MLive reported.
All three photojournalists said they were wearing camera gear around their necks.
Hester said she thought the officers had motioned for the photographers to cross the street so her group started moving, MLive reported.
She said that was when one of the officers opened fire on them with a “less-lethal” weapon from 15 to 20 feet away.
“That can kill a person or put an eye out. [Hatcher] got hit in the mouth and luckily didn’t lose any teeth,” Hester said.
She said she was hit in the face and body by as many as a dozen pellets that left welts, and claimed the munitions had barely missed her eye, MLive reported.
“I’m not someone who scares easy, but that was pretty intense to be shot at,” Hester said.
Herald said he asked an officer if he believed in freedom of the press and his oath to uphold the Constitution and “All he said to me was, ‘I don’t know,’” MLive reported.
Hester said an officer suggested to her during the heated exchange that “maybe you’ll write the truth someday, lady!”
Cpl. Debono was suspended with pay while the complaint was investigated.
On July 19, the Wayne County prosecutor announced multiple felony charges against Cpl. Debono for shooting rubber bullets at the members of the press, the Detroit Free Press reported.
“The evidence shows that these three journalists were leaving the protest area and that there was almost no one else on the street where they were,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said. “They were a threat to no one. There are simply no explicable reasons why the alleged actions of this officer were taken.”
Cpl. Debono was charged with three counts of felony assault on each of the photojournalists, the Detroit Free Press reported.
If convicted, the corporal could face up to four years in prison.
His status was changed to suspended without pay after he was formally charged, the Detroit Free Press reported.
On Tuesday, Cpl. Debono appeared before 36th District Judge Roberta Archer, the Detroit News reported.
Archer said the officers were protected under a 1931 Michigan law that “grants immunity to any officer where an unlawful assembly is declared” and dismissed all the charges against Cpl. Debono.
“The court applied the statute in this case and dismissed the charges as a matter of law,” the press release read, according to the Detroit News.
The prosecutor’s office said it has not yet decided whether it will appeal the judge’s ruling to the Wayne County Circuit Court, the Detroit News reported.
“The prosecution argued that the statute does not apply because the journalists were not a part of the protest, and the protest had been cleared at the time and place of the alleged assault by Cpl. Debono,” Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office said, according to the Detroit Free Press.