Former Gwinnett County police Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni (left) and Master Police Officer Robert McDonald. (Credit: Gwinnett County Police Department)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ex-Gwinnett cops question beating victim’s account

They had encountered each other before.

In August 2016 -- eight months before cell phone footage captured former Gwinnett County Police Officers Michael Bongiovanni and Robert McDonald punching and kicking Demetrius Hollins as he lay on the ground, handcuffed -- the 21-year-old was arrested by those same two officers for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana and obstructing an officer.  An incident report confirms Hollins’ arrest. 

Hollins said Bongiovanni struck him then, too, an unsubstantiated allegation that could end up playing a major role in the trial of the fired officers, charged with using excessive force during the 2017 traffic stop. They face no charges related to the 2016 arrest. 

At a long-delayed motions hearing held Friday in Gwinnett Superior Court, defense attorney Walt Britt requested any incident reports or jail records supporting Hollins’ claim about his first encounter with McDonald and Bongiovanni.  So far, Britt said, they’ve seen no such evidence, a clear signal that Hollins’ credibility will be put to the test by a defense team facing video evidence more difficult to contradict

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy of the police report detailing Hollins’ first arrest in which then-Sgt. Bongiovanni wrote that the suspect had a .380 gun with one bullet underneath his seat. 

"We both struggled to place Hollins in handcuffs as he twisted his body, pulled his arms from us and physically resisted arrest," said Bongiovanni, referring to himself and McDonald. 

There was no mention of striking Hollins.

But Bongiovanni also neglected to mention punching Hollins during their second confrontation in both his incident report and during an interview with internal affairs. 

Two videos of the 2017 incident, released on social media, showed McDonald kicking Hollins, handcuffed and lying on the ground, in the head as well as Bongiovanni’s punch.  Gwinnett Police Chief Butch Ayers promptly fired both men.

Bongiovanni was indicted in February on a total of eight charges: aggravated assault, three counts of violation of oath of office, two counts of false writings and two counts of battery. McDonald faces three charges, including aggravated assault. That charge stems from him allegedly pointing his gun at Hollins' head.

Bongiovanni’s attorney, Mike Puglise, insists his client didn’t punch Hollins in April 2017. He characterized it as an elbow strike, a defensive tactic taught by the FBI. 

Britt also requested “any and all use of force reports involving either one of the defendants,” a move that caught Judge Warren Davis by surprise. 

Bongiovanni’s personnel file, covering his nearly two decades on the Gwinnett force, lists 67 incidents involving use of force. McDonald, on the job for just three years, had three use of force incidents, two of which occurred with his supervisor, Bongiovanni. 

Britt also requested a copy of Gwinnett standard operating procedures that were in effect as of April 12, 2017 -- the exact date of the videotaped fracas with Hollins. 

McDonald’s attorney implied that the two officers were found to be in violation of procedures not yet enacted.  

Davis granted virtually all of the defense motions; “Folks, I don’t want to sit on this case. I want it to move,” he told the lawyers for both sides. 

But the defense still hopes to get the indictments against the officers quashed, arguing that new grand jury rules that eliminated special privileges afforded to Georgia police officers are unconstitutional and put them at a decided disadvantage. 

The changes, signed into law in 2016,  stopped the practice of allowing law enforcement personnel to observe the entire grand jury proceedings, then make a statement that couldn't be challenged or questioned by prosecutors. 

Officers can still testify but are subject to cross-examination. Neither McDonald or Bongiovanni testified before the grand jury hearing their case. 

Puglise said the new provisions violate the officers’ rights against self-incrimination.  

“In this case you’re telling the grand jurors he’s not here, he’s not present,” Puglise argued.  “Why isn’t he? There’s an inference of guilt.” 

Davis said he will rule on the motions to quash within the next two weeks. 

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