Updated: May 30, 2021
By Joe Johnson
The local district attorney’s office recently dismissed charges against a man who police said assaulted an Athens-Clarke County police detective by striking him with a trash can lid.
According to a Dismissal Prior to Indictment, filed May 11 in Clarke County Superior Court by Western Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Austin Jackson, police lacked “a particularized and objective basis" for suspecting that 39-year-old Keon Kalaspki Howard was involved in a criminal activity when detaining and subsequently arresting him at the Georgia Square mall last September.
At the time of the arrest, Howard was already wanted on warrants charging him with 17 offenses, including hijacking a motor vehicle, kidnapping, financial transaction card fraud, attempting to elude, reckless driving and a felony probation violation.
He was arrested after detectives Nate Franco and Brian O’Neill responded to a call from a manager of a business at the mall, Sunglass Hut, who reported that Howard, who the manager suspected had previously stolen from the store, had entered the business, according to a police report.
Howard, the only customer when the detectives arrived, tried exiting the store through a door where O’Neill was standing, according to the report. Police said Howard immediately confronted the detective and when O’Neill attempted to stop him from leaving, Howard “started providing violent and active resistance.”
Franco reported that as he rushed to assist, he saw Howard take a lid off a trash can in the concourse area and hit O’Neill in the head, knocking him to the ground, according to the report.
After Franco helped his colleague take Howard to the ground, Howard reportedly bit Franco’s hand.
When other officers arrived, Howard was arrested for aggravated assault on a police officer and felony obstruction, and O’Neill was transported to a local hospital, according to the report.
In dismissing the case, the prosecutor said the Sunglass Hut incident was “analogous” to a case in which the Georgia Court of Appeals “stated that the initial encounter with the defendant was first-tier police-citizen encounter and that the defendant could leave.”
Franco, who was listed in the incident report as the arresting officer, said he was never consulted about Howard's case prior to it being dismissed.
“Due to the fact that I have not spoken to anyone from the district attorney's Office, I cannot comment on their specific reasoning for the dismissal of these charges, but I can clarify that officers do not need probable cause to stop and briefly question, and even detain, a suspect where there is articulable reasonable suspicion that a crime is, or has been committed,” Franco said.
The detective stood by the decision to arrest Howard.
“I have reached out to the district attorney's office to get more clarification about why these specific charges were dismissed, but have yet to hear back from them,” the detective said. “The relationship between the police department and the district attorney's Office is important and I'm not in a position to second guess their decisions, but I stand by the legal basis for the stop and actions taken by Detective O'Neill and I with regard to Mr. Howard.
“In this case, the goal was to stop this individual and briefly ask him about prior thefts he was suspected of having committed at this business,” Franco said. “Within seconds of us entering the store and asking him to stop, he assaulted Detective O'Neill and it changed from an investigative stop encounter to probable cause for felony obstruction and assault on a Police Officer.”
When the DA’s office filed a formal accusation in court regarding the warrants that Howard had outstanding when arrested in September, the accusation did not include the kidnapping and carjacking charges.
As part of a negotiated plea, Howard on April 21 pleaded guilty to financial transaction card theft, simple battery, reckless driving, obstruction of a law enforcement officer, driving on a suspended license, and reckless conduct, according to court records.
In accordance with the plea bargain, he was sentenced to one year in confinement, with credit given for time already served in jail since his arrest on Sept. 1 and three years on probation, according to the sentencing document.
The incident at Sunglass Hut was not the first time that Howard assaulted a police officer.
During a 2004 jury trial, Howard was convicted on charges of aggravated assault and possession with intent to distribute marijuana. The assault charge stemmed from an incident the previous year when officers tried to arrest him on warrants for allegedly wounding a man in the leg in a drive-by shooting, according to Clarke County Superior Court records.
When the officers attempted to arrest him, Howard drove his car straight at one of them. The officer jumped out of the way, but still was struck in the elbow, according to Athens-Clarke County police.
Another officer lunged into the car and grabbed the steering wheel. He struggled with Howard as his legs flailed out of the car.
The other officer had pulled his gun when Howard’s car wrecked into some gas pumps, according to police.
As both officers continued to struggle with Howard while handcuffing him, he reached for a knife clipped to his back pocket, police said. Officers subsequently found three ounces of marijuana in his car. Howard was acquitted of the drive-by shooting, but upon conviction of assaulting an officer and the marijuana charge he was sentenced to two to 15 years in prison. He was released after serving eight years, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.