On a video played in State Supreme Court Tuesday, a 27-year-old Buffalo man is seen in police custody, being walked through Central Booking on March 18, 2017, by Buffalo Police Officer Joseph Hassett.
The man in custody was Timothy Staton, and he had been arrested several times before.
On the video, he is wearing a hooded sweatshirt and baggy sweatpants whose pockets are still turned out from when he was searched during his arrest on minor drug charges. His hands are locked behind him with three sets of handcuffs.
Hassett walked Staton past a booth and a couple of other people and turned down a hallway where, seconds later, you can see Staton in the video fall forward, face-first, onto the concrete floor.
He was taken down by the officer escorting him. What is now under question is why.
Staton was taken to the hospital to be checked for head injuries and to have a gaping cut over his left eye stitched up.
Hassett, now 32, a decorated member of the Buffalo Police, was charged with two counts of assault in the third degree and one count each of official misconduct, offering a false instrument for filing in the second degree and making a punishable false written statement. All are misdemeanors.
Hassett’s case is now in state court for a non-jury trial before Justice Russell P. Buscaglia, who will determine whether Hassett deliberately tripped a compliant Staton out of petty irritation, as prosecutors allege – or whether he was executing a legitimate leg sweep with a unruly suspect who had to be subdued.
For Hassett’s attorney, Timothy W. Hoover, there is no question that his client was employing what Hoover called Tuesday a “limited, reasonable and entirely justifiable use of force” last spring when he made the 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound-plus Staton drop forward while his hands were cuffed behind him.
In his opening statement Tuesday, Hoover said Staton was physically resistant and verbally abusive, and kept grabbing his own pants while Hassett ordered him to stop. Throughout their interaction, Hoover maintained, Hassett remained “calm and professional.”
Prosecutors present a much different version.
In his opening statement, Assistant District Attorney James Mara described a suspect who posed no threat whatsoever. He already had been searched for contraband, he was securely cuffed and he was trying to do nothing more than pull up his sagging pants when an angry Hassett opted to punish a man who was under his control by jerking up his arms and hip-checking him to the ground.
Other charges against Hassett allege that, after the incident, he falsified an official version of his report by saying Staton had to be subdued by several officers, although the paperwork for an in-house department report says that he alone took Staton to the ground.
The reason, Mara said, was because “he knew his actions were not reasonable, not justified and illegal.”
Staton was the only witness Tuesday. He described his arrest, by Hassett and his partner at about 5 p.m., when he was sitting in a car outside his uncle’s house at Jefferson Avenue and East North Street.
He said the officers had him lie on the ground while they went through his pockets, waistband and sweatshirt, and when he got to Central Booking he was told he would be strip-searched, but he never got that far, because he said he “was slammed to the ground” and taken to the hospital.
On cross-examination by Hoover, Staton was questioned about his marijuana use and his civil lawsuit against the City of Buffalo, drawing an angry response from Staton that didn’t conform with the question.
“I don’t care about the money,” Staton said. “I care that I got hurt by an officer.”
As Hoover tried to get in another question, Staton went on, “I’ve been arrested more than 10 times”and said that he had never had any trouble with any other officers, that they would just “come down and take care of things” when he was booked.
Staton testified, when pressed by Hoover, that he has never attended any court-ordered treatment programs from his other arrests, that he doesn’t use or sell cocaine and the charges that were placed against him for the March 2017 arrest were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal after he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct May 30.
Cross-examination was ended for the day when the judge had to handle a jury matter from another case. Testimony is scheduled to resume Wednesday, when Buscaglia recommended that Staton have with him his own attorney to advise him.