Buffalo, NY – A parolee accused of dragging two police officers with a vehicle as he was fleeing a traffic stop was acquitted of assault charges after his attorney convinced a judge that he was in fear of losing his life when he stomped on the accelerator.
Defense attorney Scott Riordan told the court that his client, 28-year-old convicted felon Marcus Prewitt, “thought he was going to die that night,” The Buffalo News reported. “My client was just terrified.”
Erie County Court Judge Susan Eagan agreed that Prewitt was under duress during the traffic stop, and she ultimately acquitted him of assaulting the officers – both of whom had been transported to the hospital due to the injuries they suffered during the attack.
“I’m astonished, shocked, disappointed,” Buffalo Police Benevolent Association (PBA) President John Evans told The Buffalo News. “The officers were in fear of their lives…To find him not guilty of anything is just astounding.”
The incident began at approximately 3:30 a.m. on April 10, 2019, when Buffalo Police Officer Matthew Cross and Officer Vincent Judge spotted a vehicle parked on the wrong side of Northampton Street.
Officer Judge approached the driver’s side and made contact with Prewitt, who was behind the wheel, while Officer Cross approached the passenger’s side of the car, The Buffalo News reported.
That’s when Officer Cross realized that Prewitt’s passenger, 30-year-old parolee Nicolas Johnson, had a firearm tucked into his waistband.
Officer Cross immediately yanked the door open and began ordering Johnson not to move as a scuffle over the weapon ensued.
“Don’t [expletive] move. Don’t [expletive] move, dude. I’ll blow your [expletive],” the officer said, according to The Buffalo News. “Don’t move. You have a gun on you. On your right side.”
Officer Cross ordered Johnson to put his hands on the dashboard and warned him that he would be shot if he didn’t stop fighting for the gun.
“I ain’t got nothing, man!” Johnson repeatedly argued.
“Please don’t shoot,” Prewitt said at one point during the altercation.
As the scuffle continued, Prewitt suddenly hit the accelerator, dragging the officers for approximately 150 feet, police said.
“They were basically attempting to wrestle this gun from this suspect before the driver took off at a high rate of speed,” Buffalo Police Captain Jeff Rinaldo told The Buffalo News. “One officer had his foot run over and one was tossed from the car.”
The officers both suffered abrasions and scrapes, and one had to be stitched up, police said.
“They are pretty banged up,” Capt. Rinaldo said at the time.
Meanwhile, the parolees were arrested by additional officers a short distance away after Prewitt crashed the vehicle, The Buffalo News reported.
Police also recovered the suspect’s firearm, WIVB reported at the time.
Prewitt and Johnson were originally charged with reckless driving, resisting arrest, criminal possession of a weapon, obstructing governmental administration, reckless endangerment, two counts of assault, two counts of attempted assault on a police officer, and two counts of attempted aggravated assault on a police officer, The Buffalo News reported.
On Jan. 30, Johnson pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon.
Eagan found Prewitt not guilty on four assault charges following a three-day bench trial that concluded on Feb. 6, The Buffalo News reported.
During the trial, Riordan argued that his “terrified” client felt he had no choice but to drive away from the scene because of the officers’ threats that they would shoot if his armed passenger didn’t comply with their orders.
“If you really look at it, any reasonable person in my client’s position would believe the officer when he said he would blow his head off,” Riordan told the court.
He said that Eagan “did the right thing” by buying into the duress defense.
“If you look at the duress defense, you can’t take away what the police officer was saying,” Riordan told The Buffalo News. “And you can’t take away, if you believe my client was afraid, him saying ‘Please don’t shoot.'”
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said that applying the duress defense in Prewitt’s case was “ridiculous,” and that neither of the officers even drew their weapons during the altercation.
“I respect Judge Eagan, but I respectfully disagree with her decision,” Flynn told The Buffalo News. “His defense was that he was under duress, that he was in fear for himself and that’s why he took off which is nonsense.”
“This opens the door potentially for other officers to get hurt here,” the district attorney warned.
Flynn said that the officers’ commands reflected the seriousness of the situation.
“In a perfect world, do we want professional language? Sure,” he said. “But I’m not going to fault anyone for using that kind of language with a suspect who has a gun. We’re not in church.”
Evans said that the Buffalo Police Department’s (BPD) morale has plummeted in the wake of Eagan’s ruling.
“It’s not a good time to be a cop,” the PBA president said.
The only legal matter Prewitt still faces is a parole violation, The Buffalo News reported.
Johnson, who is scheduled to be sentenced by Eagan on March 23, faces 12 years to life in prison on the weapons charge, The Buffalo News reported.