Ex-Cops Charged With Assaulting Black Motorist Being Sued for Damages in Federal Court

A man in Georgia who was kicked and punched in the head by police four years ago during a traffic stop is suing the officers in federal court, claiming the stop and force used against him were unfounded, the Associated Press reported.

Demetrius Hollins was was pulled over by Gwinnett County Police Sergeant Michael Bongiovanni near Atlanta in 2017, when Hollins was 22. He told reporters Wednesday that he still has "some kind of PTSD from this situation."

In video footage filmed by a witness, Bongiovanni appears to punch Hollins while Hollins is standing with his hands up as he steps out of his car. Another video shows the police sergeant screaming at Hollins as he's handcuffed. Hollins lies face-down on a busy intersection, and another officer, Robert McDonald, runs up and appears to kick Hollins' head.

Hollins filed the federal lawsuit earlier in September against Bongiovanni, McDonald, former Gwinnett County Police Chief Butch Ayers and the county.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Gwinnett County Lawsuit
This combination of undated photos provided by the Gwinnett County Police Department shows Master Police Officer Robert McDonald (left) and Sergeant Michael Bongiovanni in their official portraits. A man who was punched and kicked in the head by the Georgia police officers during a traffic stop four years ago has filed a lawsuit alleging that the stop was unjustified and the officers used excessive force against him. (Gwinnett County Police Department/AP

The lawsuit alleges that Bongiovanni pulled Hollins over without justification and then retaliated with excessive force after Hollins began using his cellphone to record video of the encounter. It says McDonald knew Hollins was not a threat when he arrived at the scene but still kicked Hollins in the head and held him down with a gun pressed to his head.

Both officers were fired the next day after video of the traffic stop surfaced. They were subsequently charged with multiple crimes related to the stop. Working phone numbers for the two could not immediately be found Wednesday, and online court records did not list a lawyer for either man who could comment on the charges.

The lawsuit also says Ayers, now the executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, was aware that officers in his department routinely used "unnecessary physical force when making arrests and searches" and that he signed off on use-of-force reports even though supervisors had decided to close the cases without further investigation or inquiry.

It also says the county's use-of-force procedure was unconstitutional because it "expressly authorized officers to use unnecessary, gratuitous, and disproportionate non-deadly physical force against citizens as a matter of routine procedure when making arrests and searches." The county allowed unconstitutional policies and practices in use-of-force investigations, discipline, training and supervision to continue unchecked for nearly 20 years, the lawsuit says.

Ayers did not immediately respond Wednesday to an email seeking comment. County attorney Mike Ludwiczak said the county does not comment on pending litigation.

As so often is the case in instances of police brutality, the officers were untruthful in their reports and the truth came out because video existed, said L. Chris Stewart, an attorney for Hollins. After this incident, he said, Gwinnett County prosecutors had to throw out dozens of cases because they could not rely on the reports filed by these officers.

"The people of Gwinnett County suffered because of these officers," Stewart said.

Hollins was driving a red Acura Integra with no license plate and a brake light that did not work, and switched lanes three times without signaling, according to an incident report filed by Bongiovanni. The lawsuit says Hollins obeyed traffic laws, had two functioning brake lights and his vehicle tag was visible through the rear window.

The lawsuit says the original stop "was not supported by actual or arguable reasonable suspicion or probable cause" to believe he had committed a traffic offense or violated any other law. Even if the traffic stop had been justified, Bongiovanni acted "in an objectively unreasonable manner" in violation of Hollins' rights, it says.

In nearly 20 years with the department, Bongiovanni had previously reported 67 use-of-force incidents. Only four were investigated and only because of formal citizen complaints, the lawsuit says. He was ultimately exonerated in all four.

Officers must file a report whenever they use physical force against a person, and supervisors are supposed to investigate that use of force to make sure it is justified and complies with department policy. But supervisors in the Gwinnett County Police Department routinely approved officers' reports and closed the cases without any investigation, the lawsuit says.

Almost all of Bongiovanni's prior use-of-force reports lacked sufficient information to determine whether they were justified, the lawsuit says. Additionally, Bongiovanni and McDonald had a history of using excessive force when responding to calls together, the lawsuit says.

Bongiovanni pleaded no contest in June 2019 to aggravated assault and battery and was sentenced to six months in a work-release program and 10 years' probation. A jury in February 2020 found McDonald guilty of aggravated assault, battery and violating his oath of office, and he was sentenced to 10 years' probation.

The lawsuit, which was filed September 10, asks for a jury trial and seeks compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys' fees and legal expenses.