FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — A judge has tossed out four of 15 criminal charges against Fall River police officer Michael Pessoa, determining prosecutors failed to present evidence showing the officer’s actions were not justified when he broke a suspect’s nose against a booking table in 2019.
Bristol County Superior Court Judge Thomas McGuire Jr. dismissed the four charges earlier this month, issuing an eight-page decision outlining his decision. He explained that while surveillance video showed Pessoa slammed Luke Raffa’s face against the table, the officer claimed his use of force was justified because Raffa had spit in his face. The was no video showing that part of the interaction, according to court documents.
“The key issue is whether the touching was justified,” McGuire wrote in his decision, explaining that to prove otherwise, the Bristol County District District Attorney’s office had to introduce evidence that showed the force was either “unreasonable or unnecessary.” Ultimately, the judge determined no such evidence was provided to the grand jury that indicted Pessoa in 2019.
“The Commonwealth did not present any probative evidence to contradict the defendant’s statement that he pushed against the counter because Raffa spit at him,” McGuire wrote. “Absent evidence on the element of justification, the Commonwealth did not establish probable cause to believe the defendant committed an assault and battery.”
As a result, McGuire dismissed the assault and battery with a dangerous weapon charge against Pessoa, along with the three subsequent offenses, explaining the other indictments that were “predicated on the defendant committing an assault and battery, must be dismissed.”
The three other charges were violating of civil rights resulting in bodily injury, intimidation of a witness or misleading police and filing a false police report, according to court documents. McGuire’s order to dismiss was first reported by the Fall River Herald News. Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III spokesperson Gregg Miliote said the case against Pessoa is “still moving forward.” He declined to comment further.
Pessoa through his attorney, Frank Camera, argued three additional criminal charges tied to a separate incident should have been dismissed. But McGuire rejected the request, explaining prosecutors presented enough evidence to back up the charges, which involved Pessoa tackling Fall River resident Aliecer Rodriguez to the ground in 2018 and smashing his phone “because he was angry that Rodriguez used it to record” Pessoa.
Rodriguez was arrested at the time and charged with disorderly conduct, ignoring commands and resisting arrest. The charges were subsequently tossed out and Rodriguez was called to testify before the grand jury in 2019. Grand jury proceedings are typically kept secret, but Target 12 obtained a transcript of the hearing.
“I’m not sure if it was a hand or a knee but it was against my neck, and it kept pressing my face in a sense towards the ground,” Rodriguez told the grand jury. “And I was like ‘You’re hurting me.’ ‘You’re hurting me.’ And he just kept putting more pressure and more pressure.”
In his order, McGuire wrote that “Rodriguez had a constitutional right to record the public actions of a police officer.” Pessoa also used force and acted willfully, he added, establishing probable cause that he violated Rodriguez’s constitutional rights resulting in bodily injury.
The Pessoa case has been especially problematic for Fall River Police Department. He’s currently accused of beating three people — excluding Raffa — and falsifying police reports over multiple years.
Camera has argued Pessoa — who pleaded not guilty to all charges — was justified in his actions. He also blames the Fall River Police Department for turning its back on Pessoa and using him as “a scapegoat” because police departments and their officers have lost political support.
“His indictments are nothing more than a political stunt for which a public servant has been wrongly crucified,” Camera told Target 12 last month.
But his case has caused a ripple effect in the legal system, affecting other criminal cases and implicating his fellow police officers.
During the grand jury investigation into Pessoa, officers Thomas Roberts, Shawn Aguiar and Andrew DeMelo also admitted to filing false police reports, according to disclosure letters sent out to defense attorneys. Aguiar and Roberts were both given immunity in exchange of testifying against Pessoa. DeMelo didn’t testify and later resigned the same day Pessoa was indicted, according to the Herald.
More recently, a judge tossed out a drunk driving case involving officer William Silvia after the district attorney’s office failed to produce evidence tied to the Pessoa case. Silvia was with Pessoa when they arrested Rodriguez in 2018 and he wrote the subsequent police report. A year later, then-Captain Jeffrey Cardoza told the grand jury the actions described in Silvia’s report did not match video of the arrest he reviewed.
Cardoza took over as police chief last year. A week ago, he took an extended leave of absence, citing health reasons. He isn’t expected to return before his anticipated retirement in March.