DEVILS LAKE -- A Devils Lake police officer will not face criminal charges after he fatally shot a Devils Lake man in early July.
Detective Brandon Potts was justified in his use of force against 26-year-old Daniel Aaron Fuller, Ramsey County State’s Attorney Kari Agotness said Friday. She said she would not file charges against Potts because “he had probable cause to believe the use of deadly force was necessary,” according to a news release.
Fuller, who was unarmed, died from a gunshot wound to the back of his head, according to an autopsy report provided to the Herald. Agotness stated in a memo that Fuller lunged at Potts during the attempted arrest. Potts hit Fuller “three or four times” with his weapon and it discharged, resulting in Fuller’s death, the memo said.
Fuller’s autopsy report stated "the discharge of the firearm was apparently inadvertent.” Potts said he was unaware he pulled the trigger, but a crime analysis determined his gun did not malfunction and that he pulled the trigger, the memo said.
The report referred to involuntary muscular contraction, which describes physical stimuli causing muscles to contract without intention.
“Because the contraction of the trigger finger is involuntary, not only does the user of the handgun not will it to happen, but conversely, he cannot will it not to happen,” the memo said. “Under the criminal laws of the State of North Dakota, this would negate the requirement of the intent needed for a criminal act.”
Dashcam video released by Agotness’ office shows a squad car pulling up to a grassy area near railroad tracks where two officers, including Potts, stand over Fuller, who appears to be sitting on the ground. The three can only be seen for the last 10 seconds of the 50-second, soundless video, but it shows what unfolded between Potts and Fuller.
The video shows Potts hitting Fuller with his gun before the Fuller’s body goes limp and the second officer jumps away.
Fuller’s family has seen the video showing the brief struggle, said his sister, Allyson Bartlett. She said it looks like Potts is dragging her brother along and that Fuller did not struggle or lunge at Potts.
“We’re deeply saddened and reminded again of the tragic ending of Danny’s death,” she said. “We feel like this is unjust.”
Potts’ attorney, Mark Friese, said in a statement the review process “has been lengthy, but comprehensive.” Fuller’s death was unfortunate, but it was the result of his “decisions to commit burglary, flee from police, and then assault Detective Potts, who was assisting in efforts to take Mr. Fuller into custody,” Friese said.
“A legion of law enforcement professionals, expert witnesses and reviewing attorneys uniformly agree that Detective Potts’ actions were reasonable, lawful and necessary to defend himself and his fellow officers,” the attorney said. “Detective Potts thanks the community for their support, and also asks the community to continue to support and console the Fuller family.”
Officers responded to multiple 911 reports of a man who was “running through the trailer court” at Southview Estates and breaking into homes. One call reported a potentially armed person, according to a memo from Agotness.
“One caller described an individual getting out of the vehicle, coming toward the caller, holding something behind his back, which the caller thought might be a gun,” the memo said.
Potts, who was on duty but was in plain clothes, responded to the scene with other officers and found Fuller, but he fled, police have said.
Potts found Fuller in the grass and gave him verbal commands to show his hands, the memo said. Fuller initially obeyed the commands but then “quickly disregarded them and engaged Detective Potts in a takedown lunge, while Detective Pott’s duty gun was exposed,” Agotness said.
Officers are not trained to use guns as “impact weapons,” though some circumstances are justified, Agotness said in the memo.
In this case, Agotness wrote, Potts could not holster his gun, could not strike with his left hand and did not have other nonlethal weapons -- such as pepper spray or a stun gun -- because he was in plain clothes.
“Detective Potts had no ability to determine whether Daniel Fuller’s intention was just to take him to the ground, or to also disarm him and use his handgun against him or others,” the memo said. “In this situation, it was reasonable for Detective Potts to perceive this as a deadly threat situation.”
The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation conducted an investigation into the shooting. The Attorney General’s Office and an independent expert recommended by the office also assisted with consultation on whether to file charges, the memo said.
Agotness cited North Dakota Century Code and case law that said a law enforcement officer’s use of force must be reasonable, but the officer can use deadly force if an individual who needs to be arrested “is likely to endanger human life or to inflict serious bodily injury unless apprehended.”
“In North Dakota, everyone has the right to defend against imminent unlawful bodily injury,” the memo said. “Detective Potts legitimately exercised this right.”
Bartlett said her family has contacted the FBI to investigate the case.
“I guess that is the next step when your local government doesn’t take care of it,” she said.
The family also plans to bring a lawsuit against the city of Devils Lake.
Potts has been on paid administrative leave since the shooting. Police Chief Joe Knowski said the city will make the final decision in the coming weeks on whether Potts should return to active duty.
Knowski, Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson and the City Commission will be a part of that decision, Knowski said.