The charges against Officer Joseph Hassett were only misdemeanors, but both sides in his police brutality case felt there was more riding on the outcome than whether Hassett would ever wear a badge again.
Cheers rang out in State Supreme Court Thursday as fellow police and Hassett's family heard Justice Russell P. Buscaglia announced his verdict in the non-jury trial of "not guilty" on all counts – two charges of assault in the third degree and two for filing a false instrument. Hassett, 32, who has been suspended for about a year, appeared more subdued.
Buscaglia offered no explanation or comment on the verdict in court.
All the charges stemmed from a March 2017 incident when Hassett intentionally tripped a handcuffed prisoner at Central Booking, causing a cut on the man's forehead that required five stitches to close. Almost the entire episode was captured by police department security cameras and the video was shown repeatedly during the trial.
While defense attorney Timothy W. Hoover praised the judge's decision and the support he said Hassett had among fellow officers and in the community for what he said was Hassett's "very limited use of force," District Attorney John J. Flynn disagreed.
"I am quite frankly shocked by this verdict," Flynn said."I totally respect this judge, Judge Buscaglia is one of the best in the building, but I disagree with this decision."
But the first thing the district attorney said was, "Have you seen the video?"
There was no question that on March 18, 2017 Officer Hassett deliberately tripped his prisoner, Timothy Staton, when his hands were cuffed behind his back. Unable to catch himself, Staton crashed face-first into a concrete floor before nearby officers rushed over. The video came to light when an assistant district attorney was collecting evidence for Staton's lawyer in the minor drug case that led to his arrest.
Flynn's office brought the video to the attention of the Buffalo Police Department's Internal Affairs investigators, and that the BPD "was just as upset as I was" about what was shown on the video, he said. The case went to the grand jury and Hassett was indicted.
The officer never denied the take-down. The judge’s decision rested on whether Hassett’s action was a criminal assault on a compliant suspect or if the officer was executing a sanctioned “leg sweep” to subdue an unruly person who was resistant to being in custody.
After the verdict, Hoover praised the judge for "paying close attention" to the evidence and to the defense witnesses and exhibits. He said he was happy about the verdict but not surprised.
"We were blessed to have an innocent client," Hoover said. "As we've said from Day 1, he didn't do anything wrong."
Staton acknowledged during Hassett’s trial that he was no stranger to Central Booking, having been arrested at least a dozen times, usually on minor drug charges. The defense used that to try to portray Staton as a hardened suspect, while Staton said that experience meant he knew his way through the system and that he expected to be processed “as usual,” not to be injured.
The defense, which includes attorneys Patrick E. Fitzsimmons and Spencer L. Durland, also called an expert witness who trains police to recognize when to use force against a suspect and what force to use in various situations. After seeing the video, which shows Hassett and Staton having words in the minutes before the trip and in which Staton can be seen pulling at his waistband, the witness said he believed the force was justified and limited.
Flynn, however, scoffed at the idea that Hassett would have felt threatened in any way by a prisoner who had been searched three times for weapons, with nothing found, and discounted the idea that the officer thought Staton could have been trying to get a weapon when he grabbed at his waistband. Staton testified he was trying to pull his pants up.
Flynn noted that Assistant District Attorneys Nicholas T. Texido and James M. Marra, presented a timeline that disproved any likelihood that Staton presented a danger.
"The assault occurred 10 seconds from the third search (at Central Booking)," Flynn said. "I find it just a little unbelievable that the officer in question felt his safety was in jeopardy ... Particularly since the man was handcuffed behind his back."
The DA also noted his belief that only a very small percentage of people in law enforcement are guilty of misconduct, with "99.9 percent doing the right thing every day."
However, he added, "I'm not going to be spooked by this verdict. I will prosecute if I see another officer acting improperly."