PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Charges have been dismissed against a former Philadelphia SWAT officer who was caught on video pepper-spraying protesters on the I-676 during a Black Lives Matter protest last summer, Action News has learned.
On Monday, a Philadelphia judge dropped charges against Richard Paul Nicoletti, 35, ruling that he had not committed a crime when he pepper-sprayed multiple protesters on June 1, 2020.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Municipal Court Judge William Austin Meehan said Nicoletti had been authorized by his commanders to clear the highway, and given pepper spray as a tool to do so.
Nicoletti was facing charges of possession of an instrument of crime and three counts each of simple assault, recklessly endangering another person and official oppression.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced Monday that his office intends to refile charges in the case.
"I fully intend to vigorously pursue charges in this matter. The people want and deserve justice and change, including police accountability, even though some institutional players are in denial. We will stay the course," said Krasner.
Mincey Fitzpatrick Ross, LLC, the law firm representing the protesters, called Monday's decision to drop charges a "travesty."
"On the same day that City Council is receiving public comment on the creation of the Citizens' Police Oversight Commission, we are seeing first hand why the Commission is so desperately needed. Today's decision by the Court to dismiss the criminal charges against Richard Nicoletti is a travesty that shows that the unwillingness to hold police accountable for their actions is not limited to the Philadelphia Police Department," said the firm in a statement to Action News.
Lawyers say the fight will continue in federal court.
"This is not the first time nor will it be the last that an initial court gets a decision wrong in a matter concerning civil rights. Our fight for justice for our clients continues in federal court. We support the decision of the DAs office to Re-file the charges. We believe, as many Philadelphians do, that the conduct of Nicoletti and the other officers involved in using tear gas and other means of excessive force against the public should be prosecuted," the statement continued.
Nicoletti was among the state and local authorities who responded to a large group of protesters who had walked onto I-676 and stopped traffic. At approximately 5:00 p.m., the SWAT unit, including Nicoletti, wearing the full SWAT uniform and gas masks, arrived in the westbound lanes of 676 near the 20th Street overpass, investigators said.
In video of the incident, Nicoletti was seen carrying a pepper spray can while he approached four kneeling protesters. Investigators say he then sprayed two of the protesters in the face. He also was seen on video pulling down the goggles of one of the protesters, before spraying her again in the face.
Investigators say he then proceeded to the third protester, who was sitting hunched over to protect his face with his legs crossed. Nicoletti reached down, grabbed and threw the protester onto his back, spraying him with pepper spray while he was lying down and standing back up. Unable to see, the protester swung at the officer but did not make contact, investigators said.
The fourth protester, who was standing nearby, was not sprayed. None of the four were taken into police custody.