Gwinnett DA to seek indictment, new charges in traffic stop beating

Feb 07, 2018
Former Gwinnett County Police Department officers Michael Bongiovanni (left) and Robert McDonald face criminal charges for punching and kicking a man during a traffic stop. (Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department)

The Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office intends to pursue new felony charges against two former police officers when it presents its case to a grand jury later this month.

The charges, which will be pursued against now-former Gwinnett police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Officer Robert McDonald — who were fired and arrested last April after striking a black motorist during a controversial traffic stop — include a new count of aggravated assault, according to a draft of the indictment that will be presented to a grand jury on Feb. 28.

The aggravated assault accusation stems from a gun being pointed at driver Demetrius Hollins during the now-infamous traffic stop near Lawrenceville. And while Bongiovanni is also charged with lying in his account of the incident and both officers are charged with battery and with violating their oath of office, the new felony accusation may prove to be the most controversial of the 10 counts that are planned to be presented.

A video posted to social media appears to show a Gwinnett County police officer kicking a man in the head as he lies on the ground during a traffic stop. Video credit: Kent Jones. Photo: www.accessatlanta.com

McDonald is accused of pointing his gun at 21-year-old Hollins during the traffic stop. Bongiovanni would be charged as a party to the crime.

“It concerns me because basically we are telling our officers … that they have to police with their hands handcuffed behind their back and they have to second guess even removing a firearm from its holster,” Mike Puglise, Bongiovanni’s attorney and a former police officer himself, said Wednesday.

The traffic stop that led to Bongiovanni and McDonald’s original arrest began shortly after 4 p.m. on April 12. According to police accounts and cellphone videos that later surfaced, Hollins was stopped while driving near the Lawrenceville-area intersection of Sugarloaf Parkway and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road.

Bongiovanni was then seen striking Hollins in the head while he stood outside his car with both hands up.

Another video showed McDonald arriving at the scene and, with Hollins already lying on the ground and handcuffed, stomping on Hollins’ head.

Both officers, who are white, were fired the day after the incident when separate cellphone videos of the traffic stop surfaced. They were later charged with battery and violation of oath by public officer.

More from subscriber site myAJC.com: In deeply diverse Gwinnett, white residents confront minority status

The proposed indictment drafted by District Attorney Danny Porter includes those charges and more — 10 counts in all, though they are not divided evenly among the officers.

McDonald, a three-year veteran of the Gwinnett County Police Department at the time will face the original charges and the new aggravated assault allegation.

Bongiovanni, who had been with GCPD since 1998, will face eight of the charges: one count of aggravated assault, three counts of violation of oath of office, two counts of false writings and two counts of battery.

The separate battery charges against Bongiovanni stem from him allegedly striking and Tasering Hollins. Porter said the false writing counts are tied to Bongiovanni lying in his report from the encounter.

The district attorney said Bongiovanni claimed he was in a “higher defensive posture” during the traffic stop because he recalled a previous encounter with Hollins. But a witness said Bongiovanni admitted he had not remembered that encounter before looking it up later, Porter said.

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Of all the charges being pursued against the officers, aggravated assault would likely carry the heftiest sentence if it were indicted, tried and convicted.

Porter defended trying to charge a police officer for pointing his gun at someone.

“He was pointing a gun at someone who was handcuffed and on the ground and, according to a witness, put the gun to his head,” Porter said of McDonald. “Officers point guns at people all the time. But they have to be justified in doing it.”

McDonald’s attorney, Walt Britt, confirmed Wednesday that his client was being served with a grand jury notice but said he hadn’t seen it yet.

“We will respond accordingly to this summons and any indictment that may or may not be returned by the grand jury,” Britt said.

Puglise, Bongiovanni’s attorney, said his client was “prepared to stand by” his actions during the traffic stop. He wasn’t sure if Bongiovanni would testify in front of the grand jury.

Under a new Georgia law passed in 2016, police officers facing criminal charges are subject to cross-examination if they choose to testify during grand jury proceedings.

CHARGES BEING SOUGHT AGAINST EX-GWINNETT OFFICERS

Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni

Aggravated assault

3 counts violation of oath of office

2 counts of false writings

2 counts of battery

Master Officer Robert McDonald

Aggravated assault

Violation of oath of office

Battery

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