Philadelphia, PA – A Philadelphia judge on Monday dismissed all charges against the former Philadelphia police officer who pepper-sprayed protesters blocking a highway last summer, but the notoriously anti-police district attorney has vowed go after him again.
Municipal Court Judge William Austin Meehan Jr. dismissed charges of simple assault, reckless endangerment, and official oppression against former Philadelphia Police Officer Richard Nicoletti on May 17, WCAU reported.
Meehan said there was a lack of evidence to support any of the misdemeanor charges against the former police officer, KYW reported.
The judge said former Officer Nicoletti had been given pepper-spray and told by his commanders to clear protesters who were blocking the highway, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
He said the officer used pepper-spray because it was the tool the officer was given to disperse the crowd.
“You may not like their methods, that doesn’t criminalize their methods,” Meehan said.
Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Brian Collins argued that the police department had fired Officer Nicoletti after the incident for violating department protocol, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Violating a police department policy is not a crime.
However, Collins said the policy violation meant the terminated officer should be held criminally accountable for assault and other charges.
But the judge disagreed, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“You can’t put [officers] in charge of maintaining order, and then tie their hands on how they’re going to do it,” Meehan said.
He also refused to allow Collins to call the former police officer’s supervisors to the stand during the hearing, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“I’m trying to figure out what the [prosecution] is doing here,” the judge said. “[Nicoletti] was authorized to use the force. You don’t like when he used it. That doesn’t make him a criminal.”
Fortunato Perri Jr., former Officer Nicoletti’s lawyer, characterized the judge’s ruling as “another example of the District Attorney’s Office charging a police officer with a crime that is not supported by the facts or the law,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who made his career by suing police officers for misconduct before he ran for office, said he would refile the charges against the former police officer.
“The people want and deserve justice and change, including police accountability, even though some institutional players are in denial. We will stay the course,” Krasner promised.
The incident occurred at about 5 p.m. on June 1, 2020 when George Floyd protesters marched onto Interstate 676 and blocked traffic.
Perri said then-Officer Nicoletti was just following orders at the protest, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“His unit was ordered by commanders to clear the highway with the approved use of tear gas and pepper spray,” the defense attorney said. “The city’s leadership was given the opportunity to apologize for approving the use of force, but Nicoletti finds himself fired and charged with crimes.”
He said that Officer Nicoletti, a 12-year veteran of the police force and former Army Ranger, “is being charged with crimes for simply following orders,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Krasner said video from the incident showed Officer Nicoletti spraying protesters with pepper spray in a manner that caused “physical harm, panic, and confusion,” WCAU reported.
He said the 35-year-old officer sprayed two protesters who were on their knees, and then pulled down the goggles on one of them and sprayed her face again.
Krasner said Officer Nicoletti then pushed a sitting protester onto his back and sprayed him with pepper spray, too, WCAU reported.
The incident sparked additional protests and Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw apologized to the community for the use of force against the protesters.
Former Officer Nicoletti was initially suspended for 30 days, but then Commissioner Outlaw said she was “disgusted” by videos of the incident and fired him, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Krasner charged the former officer with three counts each of simple assault, reckless endangerment, official oppression, and possession of an instrument of crime in connection with his actions.
“The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office will not make excuses for crimes committed by law enforcement that demean the democratic freedoms so many Americans have fought and died to preserve,” the district attorney said at the time.