On Sunday, April 11, 2021, Daunte Wright was shot and killed by Kim Potter in the course of her duties as a Brooklyn Center police officer. Police stopped Mr. Wright for a minor traffic infraction, then learned of a warrant for his arrest. When Mr. Wright attempted to leave the scene, he was shot and killed by an officer who, seemingly, was attempting to employ her taser -- but mistakenly drew her firearm instead. Officer Potter, who resigned from her duties, was taken into custody at the Hennepin County jail. She was formally charged with Manslaughter in the Second Degree on April 14, 2021.
As the Twin Cities reel in the shock of another death of an unarmed individual at the hands of police, it might be of some comfort to see that justice is being pursued promptly and without delay or unnecessarily protracted investigation. However, under Minnesota’s manslaughter statute, securing a conviction in this case may be challenging for the prosecution.
Under the subdivision relevant to the facts in this case, second degree manslaughter is appropriately charged when a person causes the death of another “by the person’s culpable negligence whereby the person creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm to another.”
This charge has three main elements: (1) the death was caused by the actor’s culpable negligence; (2) the negligence created an unreasonable risk; and (3) the actor consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm. The first two elements are easily seen in this case. First, mistaking a firearm for a taser likely constitutes “culpable negligence.” Second, firing a gun at another person from mere few feet away undoubtedly constitutes “an unreasonable risk.” But the third element presents a significant challenge. The prosecution could face incredible difficulty trying to prove that the officer “consciously took a chance of causing death or great bodily harm” if the evidence indicates she only intended to draw her taser.
Seeking more serious charges, such as murder, would likely prove even more difficult. A first-degree murder charge would require the state to prove the officer acted with premeditation and an intent to kill. A second-degree murder charge would require proof of either an intent to kill or commission of a felony without any intent to kill. A third-degree murder charge would not require that same specific intent, but it would still require proof that the officer acted with a depraved mind, without regard for human life. Proving either an intent to effect death or that the officer evinced a depraved mind -- in a case with facts suggesting she mistook her firearm for her taser – will be problematic for the prosecution because the use of a taser is intended to be nonlethal force.
A first-degree manslaughter charge would likewise present prosecutorial challenges. Under the relevant subdivision, first-degree manslaughter is appropriately charged when an actor commits (or attempts to commit) a fifth-degree assault with such force and violence that death or great bodily harm is reasonably foreseeable. Because police officers are authorized to use some force (including use of a taser) to subdue a fleeing and non-compliant suspect, arguably the Officer Potter may not have committed a fifth-degree assault and therefore could not be convicted of first-degree manslaughter.
Similar situations to this incident involving Officer Potter and Mr. Wright have arisen in other states. In Oklahoma in 2015, a sheriff’s deputy named Robert Bates intended to use his taser but instead drew his gun and killed Eric Harris. Bates was charged with and convicted of second-degree manslaughter. In California in 2009, a BART officer named Johannes Mehserle intended to draw his taser but drew his gun and killed Oscar Grant. Mehserle was charged with and convicted of involuntary manslaughter. These states have much broader manslaughter statutes which focus less on the mental state of the officer and more on the officer’s negligence.
Regardless of the outcome, this most recent police shooting provides opportunity for critical examination by the legislature of our existing statutes.