Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom announced that he has concluded, after a thorough review of the facts surrounding the death of John Duane Fairbanks (D.O.B. 5/30/78) on April 18, 2019, that Anoka County Deputy Sheriff Christopher Vitek and Coon Rapids Police Officer Alex Hattstrom were legally justified when they used deadly force during an incident that resulted in the death of John Duane Fairbanks.
On April 18, 2019, at approximately 1:40 a.m., Coon Rapids Police Officer Geoff Neumann stopped a motor vehicle for a traffic violation in the city of Coon Rapids, Anoka County, Minnesota. The vehicle was driven by a person later identified as M.M.G. The only other person in the vehicle was a front seat passenger, later identified as John Duane Fairbanks. Officer Neumann was in the process of attempting to verify whether the vehicle was properly insured when Coon Rapids Police Officer Alex Hattstrom arrived at the location of the traffic stop to see if Officer Neumann was in need of assistance. Officer Neumann and Officer Hattstrom approached the passenger side of the vehicle to give M.M.G. a verbal warning for the traffic violation. While standing near the passenger side of the vehicle, Officer Hattstrom looked through the rear passenger window and observed a hypodermic needle on the floor directly behind the passenger seat where Fairbanks was sitting. Upon being advised that there was a hypodermic needle in the vehicle, Officer Neumann directed Fairbanks to exit the vehicle. Upon exiting the vehicle, Fairbanks failed to follow Officer Neumann’s instructions to stop putting his hands in his pockets. Officer Neumann attempted to grab Fairbanks’ hands. When he did so, Fairbanks pulled away from Officer Neumann and fled the scene of the traffic stop on foot. Officer Hattstrom observed a firearm in Fairbank’s hand as he fled the scene. Officers Neumann and Hattstrom began to pursue Fairbanks on foot. During the foot pursuit Fairbanks discharged a firearm in the direction of the two officers. In response, Officer Hattstrom discharged his duty firearm multiple times in the direction of Fairbanks. Neither of the two officers were struck by bullets in this initial gun fire exchange. Fairbanks continued to flee the scene on foot while the officers took cover and waited for backup officers to arrive.
Law enforcement officers from multiple jurisdictions immediately responded to the location of the traffic stop. As officers responded, a perimeter was set up around the neighborhood where Fairbanks was last observed. Blaine Police Officer Reg Larson arrived with his K9 partner "Rex" to assist in locating Fairbanks. A "tracking team" was created that included Officer Larson and his K9, Blaine Police Officer Daniel Stefczak, Anoka County Sheriff Deputy Christopher Vitek, Anoka County Sheriff Deputy Cole Bangerter, and Fridley Police Officer Patrick Faber. The K9 eventually led the tracking team to the backyard of a nearby residence that was surrounded by a tall wooden privacy fence. The K9 was released into the backyard of the residence. When the K9 did not return in response to his handler’s commands, members of the tracking team, believing the K9 may have located Fairbanks, entered the backyard.
As the tracking team went around a corner of the residence they observed Fairbanks on the ground and the K9 pulling on Fairbanks’ leg. Members of the tracking team observed Fairbanks’ pick up a firearm with his right hand and hold it behind his back. Members of the tracking team repeatedly shouted for Fairbanks to drop the firearm and show them his hands. When Fairbanks did not respond to the commands to drop the gun and show his hands, Anoka County Deputy Vitek discharged his duty firearm three times in the direction of Fairbanks. Fairbanks fell to his side and onto his stomach. Team members approached Fairbanks and observed that he was motionless and that a handgun was in his right hand. Fairbanks was immediately handcuffed and emergency medical personnel were called to the scene. Fairbanks was pronounced dead at the scene by emergency medical personnel. An autopsy performed by the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office determined that Fairbanks had died as a result of three gunshot wounds.
On April 18, 2019, at the request of the Coon Rapids Police Department, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) became the lead investigative agency for the incident. On May 31, 2019, the Anoka County Attorney’s Office, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest due to the involvement of an Anoka County Deputy Sheriff in this incident, requested the Dakota County Attorney’s Office to review the BCA investigation and the lawfulness of the actions of law enforcement officers who may have discharged a firearm during the course of the incident. On June 5, 2019, the Dakota County Attorney’s Office began to receive investigative reports from the BCA. Additional investigative reports were received on June 10, June 21, and July 8, 2019.
LEGAL ANALYSIS AND DETERMINATION
A. Legal Standard
Under Minnesota law, the use of deadly force by a peace officer is justified in the line of duty when necessary:
(1) to protect the peace officer or another person from apparent death or great bodily harm;
(2) to effect the arrest or capture, or prevent the escape, of a person whom the peace officer knows or has reasonable grounds to believe has committed or attempted to commit a felony involving the use or threatened use of deadly force; or
(3) to effect the arrest or capture, or prevent the escape, of a person whom the officer knows or has reasonable grounds to believe, has committed or attempted to commit a felony if the officer reasonably believes that the person will cause death or great bodily harm if the person's apprehension is delayed.1
In order to bring charges against a peace officer for using deadly force in the line of duty, the State must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the use of force was not justified. 2 The intentional discharge of a firearm constitutes deadly force. 3
1 Minn. Stat. § 609.066, subd. 2
2 State v. Johnson, 719 N.W.2d 619, 629 (Minn. 1006) citing State v. Basting, 572 N.W. 2d 281, 286 (Minn. 1997)
3 Minn. Stat. § 609.066, subd. 1
In determining whether a legal justification exists for a peace officer to use deadly force, the facts and
circumstances must be reviewed from the perspective of what would a reasonable peace officer have done at the time of the incident. The proper inquiry requires careful attention to the facts and circumstances of each particular case. In making this determination, allowance must be made for the fact that peace officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. The question is whether the peace officer's actions are "objectively reasonable" in light of the facts and circumstances confronting the officer, without regard to the officers' underlying intent or motivation.4
B. Determination as to Officer Alex Hattstrom
As noted above, Officer Alex Hattstrom was involved in the initial exchange of gunfire with John Duane Fairbanks. It is unknown whether Officer Hattstrom shot Fairbanks during this initial exchange of gunfire, as Fairbanks did suffer one bullet wound which entered and exited his right arm that would likely not have been fatal. In his statement, Officer Hattstrom believes he may have shot Fairbanks as he observed Fairbanks stumble and fall to the ground after discharging his firearm. However, there is no report of any blood being found in the backyard of the residence where the chase began or by the pickup truck where Fairbanks initially fled to, and the only two bullets recovered from the body of Fairbanks have been determined to have been fired by Deputy Sheriff Vitek’s firearm. There was a third bullet found in the ground near Fairbank’s body that was determined to have been fired by Deputy Sheriff Vitek, which could have caused the gunshot wound to Fairbank’s arm.
Irrespective of whether any bullets fired by Officer Hattstrom hit Fairbanks, under Minn. Stat. § 609.066, Subd. 1, deadly force is defined as follows:
"For the purposes of this section, "deadly force" means force which the actor uses with the purpose of causing, or which the actor should reasonably know creates a substantial risk of causing, death or great bodily harm. The intentional discharge of a firearm, other than a firearm loaded with less lethal munitions and used by a peace officer within the scope of official duties, in the direction of another person, or at a vehicle in which another person is believed to be, constitutes deadly force."
As stated above, the use of deadly force by a peace officer is justified to protect the officer or another person from death or great bodily harm. Officer Hattstrom stated that he subjectively believed that at the time he discharged his firearm, that Fairbanks posed a threat of death or great bodily harm to himself or Officer Neumann. In the instance, John Duane Fairbanks fled on foot from both Officers Neumann and Hattstrom with a gun in his hand, which he fired while fleeing from these two officers. Videos and recordings taken at the time of the incident and photographs of the scene taken by investigators supports Officer Hattstrom’s statement that at the time Fairbanks discharged his firearm, the officers were not in a position to seek cover or otherwise protect themselves. Therefore, at that time, it was objectively reasonable for Officer Hattstrom to subjectively believe that Fairbanks posed a deadly threat to himself and Officer Neumann and Officer Hattstrom was therefore legally justified in using deadly force in this instance by firing his service firearm in the direction of Fairbanks.
C. Determination as to Deputy Sheriff Christopher Vitek
As stated above, the use of deadly force by a peace officer is justified to protect the officer or another
4 Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989)
person from death or great bodily harm. Here, Deputy Sheriff Vitek subjectively believed that John Duane Fairbanks posed a deadly threat to himself and other law enforcement officers at the scene of this incident. Deputy Sheriff Vitek’s subjective belief was objectively reasonable under the circumstances present at the time of this incident. Prior to confronting John Duane Fairbanks, Deputy Sheriff Vitek and other officers had been advised that Fairbanks was in possession of a gun and had fired this weapon at other officers earlier that morning. As Deputy Sheriff Vitek approached Fairbanks with other members of a K9 tracking team in the early morning hours of April 18, 2019, he and other officers yelled at Fairbanks to show his hands. At that time, Fairbanks was sitting on the ground and a K9 dog was biting his leg. Fairbanks did not respond to the repeated commands by the officers to show his hands. Fairbanks was then observed reaching to his right and picking up a gun from the ground.
Deputy Shreiff Vitek saw the gun in Fairbanks’ right hand. Deputy Sheriff Vitek and other officers at the scene repeatedly yelled for Fairbanks to drop the gun. Fairbanks did not do so and made no response to these commands.
At that time, knowing that Fairbanks had earlier that morning fired at two Coon Rapids police officers, and fearing that Fairbanks would shoot again at him and his fellow officers at the scene, Deputy Sheriff Vitek fired three shots from his service firearm, striking Fairbanks in the head, chest and likely his right arm. Immediately after these shots were fired, another officer at the scene approached Fairbanks as he lay on the ground. Fairbanks was holding a gun in his right hand with his finger on the trigger guard.
Deputy Sheriff Vitek’s account of what occurred is consistent with the statements of other officers who were at the scene of this incident, other witnesses who were present in the vicinity and video obtained from various body worn cameras worn by responding officers, video from multiple squad cars at the scene, a cell phone video, and video taken from surveillance cameras located on a nearby residence.
Accordingly, under all the facts and circumstances confronting Deputy Sheriff Vitek at the time of this incident, he was legally justified in using deadly force against John Duane Fairbanks to protect himself and other officers from death or great bodily harm.
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Backstrom commented: "Although I have concluded that the use of deadly force by the law enforcement officers was legally justified in this instance, any loss of life is a tragic occurrence, and I wish to express my sympathy to the family and friends of John Duane Fairbanks, whose life was lost in this incident."
Backstrom also expressed his concern for the well-being of the officers involved in this incident: "Even when a legal justification exists for the use of deadly force, the taking of a life is not something any law enforcement officer wishes to do and the emotional impact upon the officers involved in such a tragic occurrence can be significant."
Backstrom thanked the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which served as the lead investigative agency regarding this incident. Access to body cam video, squad car video and home surveillance and cell phone video obtained by the BCA during their investigation into this incident, and other investigative reports compiled in this case may be accessed by contacting the BCA Public Information Officer Jill Oliveira at651-793-2726.
If you have any questions, please contact James Backstrom at 651-438-4440.