ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — The former South Carolina police officer who apologized after attacking a Black man seemingly without provocation during an arrest last year now wants a jury to acquit him of a misdemeanor charge stemming from the incident.
A jury heard opening statements and witness testimony Monday on whether Jonathan Moreno, a former Rock Hill police investigator, committed third-degree assault and battery against Travis Price at a June 2021 traffic stop.
The incident roiled the city of Rock Hill after a bystander posted cell phone video to Facebook of Moreno and other officers wrestling with Price and his brother and forcing them to the ground, prompting several days of protests outside the city police station.
On Monday, Moreno and his attorneys suggested the ex-officer, who was fired two weeks after the incident, was the fall guy for the police department amid anger in the community: “He didn't do anything wrong,” said attorney Creighton Coleman. Moreno has described himself as of Colombian and German descent.
City officials had initially said police conducting a drug investigation had stopped Price’s brother for an illegal turn and that the brother had tried to run when officers removed his handcuffs so he could take off some jewelry to give to Price, who was also at the scene. Police also said Price bumped officers and refused to move back when ordered.
But two weeks later, officials said, authorities announced Moreno’s firing from the Rock Hill Police Department at a news conference where Moreno himself apologized for his conduct: “I’m here to be held accountable for my actions,” he said at the time.
Body camera and surveillance videos show Moreno in plain clothes approaching Price outside of a gas station. The videos depict Moreno grabbing Price by the chest and pushing him into a nearby propane tank before Moreno and other officers bring Price to the ground. Pinning Price down, Moreno then yells at Price to fight with him.
“That day, I was roughhoused and treated unfairly for no reason,” Price testified.
Price told jurors that he was heading home to get ready for work that day when he saw police arresting his brother at the gas station along the way. Price then stopped and got permission from officers to take his brother’s jewelry and sunglasses.
Prosecutors claimed that Moreno, who was searching the brother’s car as Price was receiving the belongings, ignored Price’s attempts to explain his presence at the scene and the other officers calling Moreno's name.
But Moreno’s attorneys argued that the context in which Moreno responded was important: the then-officer was in a “high crime” area and had just confiscated marijuana and a gun from the brother’s car. Defense attorneys said Price's brother was resisting arrest and helped create a scene of danger and chaos that Moreno was reacting to.
Moreno, who took the stand, testified that he was trying to subdue Price to secure the scene and ensure the safety of his fellow officers.
"I needed to make sure I had control of this scene,” Moreno said.
Brackett blamed a Homeland Security agent at the scene, who the solicitor said escalated the situation by antagonizing the brother, which then contributed to Moreno eventually assaulting Price.
Three Homeland Security agents called to court as witnesses refused to show up, said magistrate judge Michael Scurlock.
Due to the initial arrest and a subsequent night spent in jail, Price — a father of two with no criminal record — missed a shift at the chemical plant where he works, he testified. Prosecutors later dropped a resisting arrest charge Price faced.
“Some people think that bad interactions with law enforcement are only difficult for people when somebody dies, somebody gets shot or you have to have a funeral, and that's not the case,” Justin Bamberg, Price's attorney, told reporters outside the courthouse Monday. “It's tough for minorities in particular to watch things happen like what happened to Travis.”
The trial is scheduled to continue Tuesday.