Making citizen's arrest may backfire in Nevada


Scott Lewis thought he knew the law.

He’s not a lawyer. He’s a citizen with a gun.

Last summer, both got the 33-year-old in a lot of trouble.

Just before noon on Aug. 20, Lewis said, he witnessed a crime: A Dodge Grand Caravan was speeding north on Green Valley Parkway and running red light after red light.

Lewis called 911 and followed. Henderson police were notified of the reckless driver and started heading that way.

Soon the mini-van pulled over and what happened next ended with Lewis being charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon and impersonating a police officer, a gross misdemeanor.

Lewis advanced on Jimmie Williams, 29, took a handgun out of a fanny pack and ordered him to the ground.

Witnesses told police officers who arrived at the scene that Lewis said he was a cop and had pointed the gun directly at Williams.

Lewis had a different story. He said he pointed the gun at a “low ready position” — not at Williams — and identified himself as a former police officer

Lewis was soon in handcuffs. His gun was confiscated, his car was towed and he had to hire a defense lawyer.

Eight months later, his case finally ended after he cut a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

Lewis was fined and ordered to take an impulse control class.

Williams was never cited for running the red lights, court records show.

911 CALL

Lewis declined an interview for this story, but court records and documents show that, at least early on, he intended to fight the charges.

The incident began with a 911 call.

Lewis, who once was employed as an airport control officer, asked the 911 operator, “Can you roll units northbound on Green Valley Parkway? ... We have a vehicle that is running red lights. I’m a retired police officer. I’m trying to catch up to that vehicle right now.”

However, airport control officers are considered peace officers only while on duty at the airport , according to state law.

Lewis used police jargon as he identified himself with a “p-number” or personnel number, equivalent to a badge number.

He followed the mini-van from a distance, telling the operator, “I’m trying to be as safe as possible.”

Soon the mini-van stopped in the middle of an intersection and a man got out, grabbed something and began running toward the Terrible Herbst gas station at Green Valley Parkway and Sunset Road.

At first Lewis thought the mini-van had crashed. He then realized there was no accident and the man was carrying a gasoline can.

CONFLICTING STORIES

Lewis drove to the gas station and told the 911 operator that he would wait there to speak with responding officers.

What happened next is in dispute.

Williams, who could not be reached for this story, paid for gasoline inside the Terrible Herbst and emerged to find Lewis with a gun, yelling at him to “hit the floor — get on the ground or you will be shot,” court documents show.

Williams told officers the gun was pointed at him. He refused to get on the ground and demanded to see a badge.

Lewis told police that “he gave a verbal command to stop,” took out his handgun and pointed it at low ready position, meaning the gun was facing down at a 45-degree angle and in the direction of Williams.

“Due to (Williams) putting pedestrians and drivers in danger by his unsafe driving, (Lewis) wanted to make a citizen’s arrest for the safety of the public,” a police report said.

Williams told officers he only went through one yellow light, and that he was about to run out of gasoline and was in a hurry to reach the gas station.

Officers spoke with three witnesses who confirmed Williams’ account of the confrontation.

One said Lewis pointed the gun directly at Williams before lowering it to the 45-degree angle.

Officers arrested Lewis because they believed he had identified himself as a current police officer and had pointed his gun at Williams.

Lewis’ handgun, a shotgun he had in his car and prescribed medication he had with him were confiscated.

LANDMARK CASE

Lewis hired veteran defense lawyer Bill Terry, and the case was set for a preliminary hearing in March before Henderson Justice of the Peace Rodney Burr.

Early on, the evidence and the law appeared to be against Lewis.

Even though Nevada law allows citizens to make arrests, a 2001 Nevada Supreme Court decision in State v. Weddell held that a citizen cannot use deadly force when trying to do so.

In the landmark case, Rolland Weddell had shot at a man he believed had struck one of his employees with a vehicle over a drug transaction involving Weddell’s daughter.

When police did not arrest the man, Weddell attempted to do so. The man ran when he saw Weddell with a gun, and Weddell shot at him.

Weddell had argued he could use “whatever force is necessary, including deadly force, to accomplish the arrest of and/or prevent the escape of a fleeing felon,” according to Supreme Court documents.

The high court held, however, that “use of deadly force to make an arrest was unreasonable, as a matter of law, unless he was threatened with serious bodily injury to himself or others.”

CELLPHONE VIDEO

The break for Lewis came when Terry, through discovery, obtained a cellphone video recorded by Williams.

The 14-second video showed Lewis standing in front of Williams with his handgun out and pointed down at a 45-degree angle.

What Williams said on the video also supported Lewis’ version of another part of the confrontation:

“This is me Jimmie Williams recording this. I’m being held at gunpoint right now by this guy who says he is a former police officer.”

Court records show that on March 14, the date of Lewis’ preliminary hearing, prosecutors offered a deal.

Lewis took it, pleading guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. Burr fined Lewis $250, ordered him to take an impulse control class and to stay out of trouble.

CONCEALED WEAPONS

Lewis’ arrest serves as a cautionary tale to those who might want to take the law into their own hands.

Lawyer and former prosecutor Robert Langford warned that using deadly force to hold anybody is not something to be done lightly.

“If you’re not within the bounds of the law, you run the risk of being arrested yourself,” said Langford, who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

“People see a gun and they immediately feel threatened. Even if you are holding it in a non-threatening manner (such as a low ready position), people do feel threatened,” Langford said.

And if they feel threatened, the person with the gun could be arrested for simply brandishing a firearm.

“You have the right to do it, to carry your firearm in a non-threatening way, but the minute that it could be considered threatening at all, you subject yourself to prosecution,” Langford said.

As far as citizen’s arrests go, Langford explained why he would never try to forceably hold somebody: “That’s why we have the police.”

Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

 

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