Washoe County DA finds Miciah Lee shooting was justified under Nevada law

Susan Clopp (holding sign on the left), mother of Miciah Lee, participated in a die-in protest at the Washoe County District Attorney's Office on Friday June 26. During the die-in, she called for the release of investigation materials related to her son's death in an officer-involved shooting in Sparks, NV on January 5, 2020. DA Chris Hicks met with Susan Clopp on Monday June 29 and released the investigation materials after the meeting. The DA deemed the shooting justified under Nevada law – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Washoe County District Attorney (DA) Chris Hicks has determined that the January 5, 2020 Sparks Police Department Officer Involved Shooting (OIS) of Miciah Lee by officers with the Sparks Police Department was justified under Nevada law.

This conclusion, according to a press release, is based on an extensive review of the entire investigation and the application of Nevada law to the known facts and circumstances surrounding the shooting incident.

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks made the following statement regarding the Miciah Lee case:

“Mr. Lee’s death was a tragic end to a young man’s life and this community should be saddened by it. As District Attorney, my ethical and professional responsibility is to justly uphold the law and apply it equally and objectively in all situations. I have always abided by that responsibility, when the world is looking and when it is not. My decision in this case is based on the law in Nevada and upon a thorough review of the facts and circumstances surrounding the incident and the actions of the officers involved in the shooting.”

Consistent with all OIS reporting, a detailed 50-page report containing the facts of the case, photographs, identification of those involved, witness accounts, and the incident’s legal analysis has been released to the public and is available on the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office’s website.

Regarding the release of officer bodycam footage, the DA’s Office says “the Sparks Police Department has prepared and will release a Critical Incident Community Briefing containing relevant Body Worn Camera Footage on YouTube.”

The Reno Police Department (RPD) led the investigation into the shooting of Lee. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) provided secondary investigative support, and the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Forensic Science Division (FIS) provided forensic services. The Washoe County District Attorney’s Office responded to the scene and was available to provide legal assistance in the investigation.

According to the DA’s Office, the investigation included interviewing witnesses, canvassing the shooting area for additional witnesses, collecting physical evidence, photographing the shooting scene, forensically testing collected evidence, obtaining available video evidence, reviewing medical records of Lee, and interviewing multiple officers to include those involved in the shooting.

Report Summary:

The following summary is from the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office:

On January 5, 2020, at 5:48 p.m., a 911 call was received by Sparks Police Emergency dispatch from Susan Clopp (hereinafter “Clopp”), informing them that her son, Miciah Lee, 18 (hereinafter “Lee”), was suicidal and located in front of Chuck’s Boulevard Pizza, a popular restaurant on Rock Boulevard in Sparks, Nevada. Clopp added that Lee was armed with a handgun and was threatening to kill himself or “die by cop.” She further informed the dispatcher the she and her two other sons were attempting to block Lee’s car with their bodies so he could not leave but felt Lee may run her or her son over with his vehicle. Clopp also stated that Lee was mentally unstable and had a history of drug use. The information provided by Clopp, about Lee’s location, his mental state, his suicidal ideation, and the fact that he was armed with a handgun was then broadcast to Sparks Police Department (hereinafter “SPD”) Officers who responded quickly to the emergency.

Lee had already fled in his vehicle when the first officers arrived, with Clopp and her sons attempting to follow him on foot. Responding officers initially located and met with Clopp on 15th Street, near Sparks High School, and received additional information that Lee was in a silver Pontiac, that he had a handgun, and that he had a bipolar disorder and other mental health issues. Clopp was in obvious distress, adding that Lee had threatened to “die by cop” or commit suicide. While several SPD officers remained on scene with Clopp and one of her sons, additional SPD officers continued their search for Lee’s vehicle.

Minutes later, SPD Officer Ryan Patterson (hereinafter “Officer Patterson”) located Lee’s vehicle near the intersection of 13th Street and G Street. The vehicle had its lights off and as Officer Patterson slowed to see the license plate, Lee sped away into a small housing complex. Officer Patterson called out over the radio that he had located Lee and then followed him to 15th Street, where Lee turned northbound heading towards the location of Clopp, her son, and responding officers. Due to the nature of the 911 call and Lee’s approach towards other officers and family members, Officer Patterson initiated his lights and siren to stop Lee. Lee did not stop. Instead, he increased his speed, first to 40 miles per hour, and then to approximately 48 miles per hour in a 25 miles per hour residential area. Lee sped past his family members and SPD Officers, who were taking cover from his approach on 15th Street.

At the intersection of 15th Street and Rock Boulevard, Lee struck the rear end of an occupied blue sedan that was waiting at the stop sign. Officer Patterson pushed his patrol vehicle against the rear of Lee’s vehicle to block him in and secure Lee from causing further danger. Officer Patterson and other responding officers repeatedly shouted multiple verbal commands at Lee to shut off his vehicle, to exit his vehicle, and to show his hands. Lee disregarded these commands, revved his engine, and began trying to physically push the blue sedan in front of him out of his way and onto Rock Boulevard and its oncoming traffic. For nearly a minute, Lee thrust his vehicle into the back of the occupied blue sedan, which caused his vehicle’s tires to spin and squeal. The driver of the blue sedan continually pressed on his brakes in order to avoid being pushed onto Rock Boulevard. Hoping to get control of Lee, an officer fired a foam projectile through a window of Lee’s vehicle to shatter it, thereby enabling officers to physically remove Lee.

However, after the foam projectile penetrated the window, Lee had created enough space to maneuver his vehicle from the vehicle block. He sped away northbound on Rock Boulevard into a residential neighborhood. For approximately three-quarters of a mile, Lee drove in excess of 70 miles per hour through the densely populated area listed as a 25 miles per hour zone. During this time, he crossed through numerous intersections and over several pedestrian crosswalks. At the intersection of Rock Boulevard and North McCarran Boulevard, Lee attempted to make a left-hand turn onto North McCarran Boulevard where many vehicles were traveling in both directions.

The speed of Lee’s vehicle made him unable to negotiate the turn. Lee crashed into a brick retaining wall on North McCarran Boulevard and then careened back across two travel lanes where his vehicle stopped crossways on the center median of North McCarran Boulevard between both the east and west travel lanes.

Multiple officers who had been pursuing Lee arrived at the crash site and again blocked Lee’s potential for travel by hitting the front and rear driver’s side of Lee’s vehicle. Officers then quickly approached Lee’s car shouting verbal commands at Lee to show his hands. The commands were again disregarded. Officer James Hammerstone (hereinafter “Officer
Hammerstone”) and Officer Patterson approached Lee’s vehicle from the driver side door. Officer Hammerstone was able to open it, exposing Lee.

Both officers continued to give Lee commands to exit the car and show his hands. However, Lee remained in the driver’s seat, with only his right hand visible, resting on the upper part of his left leg. Lee’s left hand remained concealed near his lap area as officers continued instructing Lee to show his hands. Officer Patterson made the decision to release his police dog, Cabo, to help gain compliance from Lee. As trained, Cabo bit onto Lee’s left forearm. Officer Patterson then leaned into the vehicle and attempted to physically remove Lee from the driver’s seat. While struggling to remove Lee, Officer Patterson saw a handgun tucked between Lee’s legs. Officer Patterson attempted to grab the gun to secure it for his and Lee’s safety. As he did so, Lee also reached for the weapon.

Fearing for his life, Officer Patterson abandoned his attempt to secure the handgun, pushed off and away from Lee and drew his firearm. Officer Patterson yelled, “He’s got a gun! He’s got a gun!” and discharged five shots at Lee, striking him multiple times.

Simultaneously to what was occurring with Officers Hammerstone and Patterson, Officer Eric DeJesus (hereinafter “Officer DeJesus”) had approached Lee’s vehicle on the passenger side. He unsuccessfully tried to open the passenger-door. Officer DeJesus watched as Officer Patterson engaged in the struggle with Lee before hearing Officer Patterson yell “gun” followed shortly by gunfire. Hearing this and believing that Lee had fired at Officer Patterson, Officer DeJesus discharged two rounds from his firearm, also striking Lee. Immediately following the shooting, SPD officers requested medical assistance. However, Lee was subsequently pronounced dead at the scene. During the subsequent investigation, it was discovered that Lee’s weapon was not loaded.

Conclusion

Washoe County DA Chris Hicks released the following conclusion:

“While the unfortunate reality of the tragic death of Miciah Lee cannot be overstated, the facts and circumstances of the entire incident when applied to Nevada law reveal the actions of Officer Patterson and Officer DeJesus were legally justified.”

Justifiable Homicide Laws in Nevada

In Nevada, there are a variety of statutes that define justifiable homicide. The Washoe County DA’s Office referred to the following laws with reference to the Miciah Lee investigation – NRS 200.120, 200.140, and 200.160.

The DA also cited another statute that defines excusable homicide and one that provides for the use of deadly force to effect arrest – NRS 200.180 and NRS 171.1455.

According to the DA, there is also case law authority interpreting justifiable self-defense and defense of others.

NRS 200.120 provides in relevant part that “Justifiable homicide is the killing of a human being in necessary self-defense, or in defense of… person, against one who manifestly intends or endeavors, by violence or surprise, to commit a felony…” against the other person.

NRS 200.160 further provides in relevant part that “Homicide is also justifiable when committed… in the lawful defense of the slayer… or any other person in his or her presence or company, when there is reasonable ground to apprehend a design on the part of the person slain to commit a felony or to do some great personal injury to the slayer or to any such person, and there is imminent danger of such design being accomplished”.

In his Report on the Officer-Involved Shooting of Miciah Lee, the Washoe County DA writes that the Nevada Supreme Court refined the analysis of self-defense and, by implication defense of others, in Runion v. State, Nev. (2000). According to the DA, in the Runion decision, the Court set forth sample legal instructions for consideration in reviewing self-defense cases as follows:

The killing of another person in self-defense is justified and not unlawful when the person who does the killing actually and reasonably believes:

  1. That there is imminent danger that the assailant will either kill him or cause him great bodily injury.
  2. That it is absolutely necessary under the circumstances for him to use in self-defense force or means that might cause the death of the other person, for the purpose of avoiding death or great bodily injury to himself.

According to the Washoe County DA, bare fear of death or great bodily injury is not sufficient to justify a killing. “To justify taking the life of another in self-defense, the circumstances must be sufficient to excite the fears of a reasonable person placed in a similar situation. The person killing must act under the influence of those fears alone and not in revenge,” the DA wrote in his report on the officer-involved shooting of Miciah Lee.

In his Report on the Officer-Involved Shooting of Miciah Lee, the DA wrote that actual danger is not necessary to justify a killing in self-defense. “A person has a right to defend from apparent danger to the same extent as he would from actual danger.” The person killing is justified if:

  1. He is confronted by the appearance of imminent danger which arouses in his mind an honest belief and fear that he is about to be killed or suffer great bodily injury.
  2. He acts solely upon these appearances and his fear and actual beliefs.
  3. A reasonable person in a similar situation would believe himself to be in like danger. The killing is justified even if it develops afterward that the person killing was mistaken about the extent of the danger. If evidence of self-defense is present, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense. If you find that the State has failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense, you must find the defendant not guilty.

Justifiable Homicide by Public Officer

NRS 200.140 provides in relevant part that “Homicide is justifiable when committed by a public officer… when necessary to overcome actual resistance to the execution of the legal process, mandate or order of a court or officer, or in the discharge of a legal duty” and “When necessary… in attempting, by lawful ways or means, to apprehend or arrest a person” and/or “in protecting against an imminent threat to the life of a person”.

Use of Deadly Force to Effect Arrest

NRS 171.1455 provides in relevant part “If necessary to prevent escape, an officer may, after giving a warning, if feasible, use deadly force to effect the arrest of a person only if there is probable cause to believe that the person… Poses a threat of serious bodily harm to the officer or to others.