The conviction of Minnesota police officer Kim Potter for the death of Daunte Wright by a jury, combined with the judge’s denial of bail pending her appeal, is a double injustice with grave consequences for American policing.
Officer Potter, a decorated cop with over two decades of experience, simply did not commit a crime. The prosecution admitted that she did not intend to shoot Wright and that she erred by pulling out and firing a gun rather than a Taser.
Honest mistakes are not crimes in the United States, even if they result in tragic deaths. For example, an elderly driver inadvertently pressing the gas instead of the brake and killing a child is not necessarily a crime. Only if the action was reckless, involving a conscious decision to engage in conduct that the defendant knows poses a high risk of serious injury or death, does it become a crime.
In this case, there was no evidence that Potter consciously chose to deploy and fire a gun rather than a Taser. There was also insufficient evidence to show that Potter’s deliberate decision to stun Wright was criminal. Wright had an outstanding warrant for an armed crime, and his deliberate decision to resist arrest and get back in his car posed a direct threat to the life of Potter’s colleague and others. She was correct to stun him, but she erred by using the incorrect weapon.
The judge’s decision to deny Potter bail pending appeal was even worse than the jury’s verdict. Potter’s conviction is almost certainly going to be overturned by an appellate court. Potter does not pose a flight risk or a threat to the community. The judge’s decision to imprison her appears lawless and calculated to appease the public’s desire to hold police accountable, even when the facts and the law do not justify imprisonment.
Officer Potter’s conviction and imprisonment represents a dangerous trend in American law. Prior to the racial “reckoning” that followed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s unjustified killing of George Floyd in May 2020, a once-respected officer like Potter would never have been charged with criminal conduct for her tragic mistake. The public, however, demanded that she be charged. Some even called for her to be charged with murder.
Elected prosecutors – and we are the only country in the world that elects prosecutors – are frequently more concerned with pleasing the voters than with doing justice. This appears to be the case here.
Every American, regardless of race or political affiliation, should be concerned when a decent police officer is wrongfully charged and convicted for making the kind of honest mistake that any person could make when faced with the pressures of a life-or-death decision. This decision will discourage police officers from taking actions that may be necessary to protect innocent lives.
Only rarely do police officers use their guns or Tasers, but such action is sometimes required. When taking action in circumstances such as those faced by Officer Potter, honest mistakes are unavoidable – and such mistakes can have both positive and negative consequences. What if Potter had failed to stop Wright, allowing him to re-enter the vehicle and kill another officer as well as several pedestrians? That, too, would have been a genuine error.
Criminal law is supposed to apply to bad people who are consciously making bad decisions that they know or should know are illegal. It should not apply to good cops who make honest decisions that turn out to be incorrect.
Potter should file an appeal against her conviction and denial of bail. Not only should police organizations file briefs in her favor, but so should civil liberties organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which should be concerned about the misuse of criminal law to satisfy voters.
The record in this case, including the evidence and the judge’s instructions, should be carefully reviewed by the Minnesota appellate courts.
The function of appellate courts is to be a step removed from the passions of the crowd and to apply the law neutrally and fairly. Such an application of the law to Officer Potter should result in an immediate decision to free her on bail, and then a subsequent decision to reverse her conviction, with instructions to dismiss the indictment.