Ironically, Potter would likely have been legally privileged to shoot Wright, had she done so intentionally.
Tomorrow morning begins the jury selection in the Minnesota trial of former Brooklyn Center Police Officer Kimberly Potter, on charges of 1st and 2nd degree manslaughter for April 11, 2021, shooting death of criminal suspect Duante Wright, whom Potter shot in the mistaken belief that she was wielding her less-than-lethal Taser electroshock weapon.
The shooting and immediately surrounding events were captured on Potter’s body camera.
Uniformed officers initially pulled Wright over for driving a vehicle with expired license tags. The officers discovered that Wright, 20 years old, had an outstanding arrest warrant during the stop. It’s my recollection that the underlying offense was a weapons charge.
As Wright was about to be handcuffed while standing by his car’s open driver’s side door, he suddenly began to resist arrest violently. He dove back into the vehicle, scrambling around, and ultimately was in a position from which to drive the car.
Potter had been hanging back and observing the arrest until Wright began to resist violently. She was reportedly present in the role of a training officer, and at the time had 26 years as a police officer.
Potter approached the driver’s side door of Wright’s car, threatened to tase Wright, pulled her Glock 17 service pistol, shouted “Taser! Taser! Taser!” and then fired a single 9mm round into Wright’s body.
At that point, Wright took off driving the vehicle, making it a few blocks before crashing to a stop. He would be declared dead at the scene. Immediately upon Wright’s departure from the scene, Potter can be overhead stating, “Holy shit, I just shot him.”
Initially, it seemed that Potter would face no criminal charges in this event, as then-Police Chief Tim Gannon characterized the shooting as a tragic accident. On Tuesday, April 13, 2021, however, Chief Gannon and Officer Potter resigned from the department. On Wednesday, April 14, 2021, Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter under § 609.20(2), a felony that carries a sentence of up to 10 years.
That charge was supplemented on September 2, 2021, with an additional count of first-degree manslaughter predicated on reckless use of a firearm, under § 609.205(1), a felony that carries a sentence of up to 15 years.
Both of the crimes charged are predicated on a mental state of recklessness. That is, prosecutors do not claim that Potter intended to shoot Wright. Rather, they argue that by drawing her Glock 17 from the holster on the right side of her duty belt in place of the Taser placed, as required, on the left side of her duty belt, Potter created an unreasonable risk of causing death or great bodily harm, and consciously disregarded that risk.
The degree of risk being deadly in nature and the conscious disregard of that risk differentiates recklessness from mere negligence. Where recklessness is a valid basis for a criminal charge, as in this case, mere negligence would warrant only a civil suit for damages and not create criminal liability.
I expect that Potter’s legal defense will be either that her conduct was at worst mere negligence so that there ought to be only civil and no criminal liability, or even that her conduct qualifies as a genuine accident to which neither civil nor criminal liability attaches. Accident is a genuine legal defense, much as self-defense is a genuine legal defense.
That said, a legal defense of accident in cases involving firearms is difficult, because firearms are inherently dangerous instruments, and thus the standard of care is very high. For practical purposes, unjustified death, injury, or risk created by the handling of a firearm is treated as a strict liability offense and is inherently criminally reckless (absent some intervening event outside the gun handler’s control)
Certainly, Potter’s black Glock 17 pistol and her bright-yellow Taser are not difficult to distinguish under normal circumstances. They are worn on opposite sides of her duty belt, with the Glock by her dominant-side right hand and her Taser by her “weak-side” left hand.
The scene of Wright’s arrest, however, was arguably not a normal circumstance, at least not once Wright began violently resisting arrest, presented himself as lunging into the car perhaps for a weapon (his outstanding arrest warrant was, I believe, for a weapons charge), and then positioning himself to drive wildly from the scene, in effect preparing to use the car itself as a weapon.
I expect that the Potter defense will argue that her conduct might qualify as reckless in the coolness of 20-20 hindsight, but that Wright’s contribution to the chaos by his violent resistance to a lawful arrest is an important aspect of the totality of the circumstances that ought to mitigate Potter’s mental state to something less than reckless.
Interestingly, under the totality of the circumstances, it seems likely that Potter would have been privileged to use deadly force upon Wright, had she done so intentionally in the belief that Wright had re-entered the vehicle to access a weapon or intended to use the vehicle itself as a weapon. In that case, the appropriate justification for the shooting would be self-defense and defense of others. Because Potter so clearly did not intend to use deadly force, however, self-defense would seem to be off the table, as self-defense is an inherently intentional act—one cannot commit an act of accidental self-defense.
This case appears to be pushed aggressively by the Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was also a prominently featured personality during the trial of Police Officer Derek Chauvin over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Brooklyn Center, where Potter was a police officer and she unintentionally shot Wright, is a nearby suburb of Minneapolis.
And that’s about where we are at, as jury selection in the trial of Ms. Potter is set to begin tomorrow. We hadn’t initially planned to cover this trial in real-time because the judge had refused to allow news cameras in the courtroom, but she recently reversed that decision.
Accordingly, we’ll be live commenting and live-streaming this trial every day at Legal Insurrection, much as we did the recent Rittenhouse trial in its entirety, as well as the chunk of the Ahmaud Arbery case trial that did not overlap with Rittenhouse.
We’ll also be providing an end-of-day wrap-up analysis of each day’s proceedings in the evening, with both live daily coverage and end-of-day analysis expected to run through to the verdict.
OK, folks, that’s all I have for you on this topic.
Until next time:
You carry a gun so you’re hard to kill.
Know the law so you’re hard to convict.
Attorney Andrew F. Branca
Law of Self Defense LLC
Nothing in this content constitutes legal advice. Nothing in this content establishes an attorney-client relationship, nor confidentiality. If you are in immediate need of legal advice, retain a licensed, competent attorney in the relevant jurisdiction.
Donations tax deductible
to the full extent allowed by law.