San Francisco Police Officer Nicholas M. Buckley in November 2014 (DPA records)

San Francisco Police Officer Nicholas M. Buckley in November 2014 (DPA records)

Federal judge: SF police officer’s testimony was ‘pure fiction’

A federal judge who strongly condemned the false testimony of a San Francisco police officer five years ago doubled down on his findings Tuesday after the San Francisco Examiner reported that the officer was returned to duty without apparent punishment.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer described the false testimony of Officer Nicholas M. Buckley in a 2016 gun case as a work of “pure fiction” in a new court filing. Breyer indicated he was considering holding Buckley in contempt of court after the Examiner revealed in February that federal authorities closed a perjury investigation without bringing charges.

Breyer ultimately decided not to move forward with proceedings against Buckley, even though he found the officer “arguably committed criminal contempt.” But the judge did make a clear public record of Buckley being untruthful with his 10-page order, which could impede the officer from taking the stand in future criminal prosecutions.

“Buckley’s testimony did not merely include one or two falsehoods. It was closer to an epic fantasy: ‘an hour, an hour-and-a-half’ of pure fiction … featuring not only false testimony but also Buckley physically acting out (the defendant’s) supposedly rigid gait for the Court,” Breyer wrote. “Buckley’s prolonged, false, and ultimately non-responsive testimony thwarted an effective hearing and wasted the Court’s time.”

Buckley was placed on desk duty in 2016 after video evidence emerged that contradicted his testimony against a man who he arrested on a gun possession charge while breaking up an illegal dice game in the Tenderloin. The discrepancies prompted the federal case against the defendant, Brandon Simpson, to be dismissed. And Breyer directed officials to furnish the San Francisco Police Department with a copy of the transcripts from the proceedings for an administrative review.

In March 2020, the department quietly returned Buckley to patrol at Taraval Station before transferring him to Bayview Station in October 2020, the Examiner previously reported. The police union said Buckley had been “cleared of any allegations of dishonesty” both criminally and administratively. And Buckley did not face any criminal charges for perjury.

The decision to move Buckley back to patrol raised concerns about whether the department was holding officers accountable for misconduct and about the potential impacts on future criminal cases involving Buckley. Prosecutors might be more likely to dismiss a case than rely on the testimony of an officer with such baggage in his past. Under a 1963 court ruling called Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must disclose any exculpatory evidence to the defense including evidence that could impeach a witness.

Ellen Leonida, a former federal public defender who represented Simpson in the gun case, said Tuesday that Breyer’s order will effectively ensure Buckley “won’t be able to get away” with falsely testifying against another defendant.

“It will keep officer Buckley from victimizing other people with his false narratives,” Leonida said. “I don’t think he’s a person who could ever credibility testify in court ever again, which is going to seriously impede his usefulness and his utility as a police officer. It is just so unfathamable to me that he is still working as a sworn police officer, that he is on the street, that he is still talking to people, that he has the ability to arrest people.”

An attorney for Buckley has not responded to repeated requests for comment. But in a newly unsealed letter to the court ahead of his ruling, Buckley’s attorney James Lassart asked Breyer to give the officer a chance to explain his testimony behind closed doors. He argued that Buckley was in an impossible position as both addressing the court publicly or remaining silent — and not defending himself — could harm him.

“I am envisioning this procedure as a benefit for Officer Buckley to provide an accurate portrayal of the events,” Lassart said. “I request that the Court insure against any form of a hectic media event.”

Breyer declined to hold the closed-door proceedings and instead issued his order Tuesday. He is not expected to take any further action in the case.

Police Chief Bill Scott has stood by his handling of the matter and said he has “full confidence in Officer Buckley to serve with distinction.” He said Buckley was cleared by a criminal grand jury and the District Attorney’s Office under former District Attorney George Gascon.

Buckley remains on the force in the Operations Bureau as of Tuesday, a police spokesperson said.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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