A Utah man urged legislators to pass new self-defense law. Now he’s making use of it.
Nov 30, 2021, 8:55 AM | Updated: 9:29 am
SALT LAKE CITY – A man who urged Utah lawmakers to pass a self-defense bill earlier this year is now hopeful the controversial new law will lead to several felony charges against him being dismissed.
Jon Michael Clara, 57, is facing charges for shooting at another driver after a bizarre crash.
While the new law could help him avoid a trial, it’s also adding months to the judicial process, one of the unintended consequences highlighted in a recent KSL investigation.
Clara is charged with seven felony counts of discharging a firearm after shooting at a vehicle that crashed into his on Nov. 23, 2019.
According to a probable cause statement filed in the case, Salt Lake City police responded to a report of shots fired at 900 West 100 South in Salt Lake County. That’s where officers observed Clara’s vehicle facing south in a northbound lane.
Clara told responding officers that a blue truck with a snowplow hit the white Toyota 4Runner he was driving multiple times, causing the Toyota to spin around. According to the document, Clara reported the blue truck continued driving northbound.
“CLARA stated he got out of the Toyota and started shooting because he thought the truck was going to turn around,” the document states. “CLARA stated he was aiming at the pavement towards the back of the truck to keep it away.”
One of the bullets flew through the cab of an uninvolved third vehicle, a truck that was stopped nearby as drivers in the area waited for a train to pass.
According to the document, a man reported hearing glass break as the bullet entered through a rear window and exited through the windshield. The man was seated in the driver seat, his wife was in the front passenger seat and the couple’s 12-year-old daughter was sitting in the back seat. No one was injured, but the child had several pieces of broken glass in her hair.
The blue truck with the snowplow turned east on a side street before the train tracks and was found at 820 West 200 South, crashed into a chain-link fence, according to the police report. The driver had fled.
The truck’s registered owner told police his truck had been stolen. Police have not identified the driver.
A transcript of an interview with Salt Lake City police officer Ricardo Franco that is part of the public filings in the case against Clara shows Franco was asked whether he believed Clara’s actions endangered others.
When Franco answered yes, he was asked who Clara put in danger.
“Who did he endanger?” Franco responded, according to the transcript. “All those rounds going down the road, whoever was down that road could have been hit.”
During Monday’s evidentiary hearing to address the issue of self-defense, Clara recounted what he remembers from that day.
Both Clara and Michael Harman, who was a passenger in Clara’s SUV, said they initially thought the driver of the blue truck had crashed into them by accident, but then started to believe it was happening intentionally when the truck rammed into them multiple times, eventually causing the SUV to spin 180 degrees and face oncoming traffic.
Dash camera video from Clara’s vehicle played in court showed the back end of the blue truck brushing past the SUV as it spun it around to face the wrong way. Off camera, seven gunshots are heard seconds later.
“If I hit him, I was OK with that,” Clara said during Monday’s hearing, when asked whether he intended to injure the driver of the blue truck. “But I was kind of looking at the bigger mass, which was the vehicle … I was just aiming to let him know, if you come back this way, you know, you’re gonna get shot.”
Clara said he saw the blue truck’s brake lights as it stopped and turned right toward nearby businesses. He said he was worried the driver would turn around and come back and he was acting to defend himself and Harman.
“The other thing I was worried about is if he turned all the way around, he has this, this snowplow thing in front of him that acts like his bulletproof shield,” Clara said. “So, you know, if he turned all the way around, then I wouldn’t have been able to do anything for myself or my passenger.”
Harman testified that he called 911 and was on the phone as he heard the gunshots. He said he remembers seeing the truck’s brake lights too but doesn’t know whether the truck had stopped before or after he heard gunfire.
“I don’t know the exact sequence of that,” said Harman. “I just know, when I looked up his brake lights were on, there were shots being fired. I don’t know which happened first exactly, but then that’s when he took off.”
Prosecutor Spencer Wyatt also called three Salt Lake City police officers as witnesses and showed portions of the footage collected by Clara’s dash camera.
One officer spoke briefly about the bullet that traveled into a nearby, unrelated vehicle. He said he believes documentation from the crime scene would include a photo of the glass in the girl’s hair, but no photos were shown in court.
Clara’s legislative testimony
Monday’s hearing is the product of Utah’s new self-defense law, HB227, which went into effect in May.
HB227 triggers a new pre-trial process for cases in which the accused claims self-defense.
Prosecutors must now prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant did not act in self-defense or in the defense of others. If prosecutors cannot prove that an individual’s use of force was not justified in a justification hearing before a trial, the case is dismissed before it ever goes before a jury.
Experts say the new requirement for pretrial hearings is a high burden for prosecutors, especially in new cases, as evidence is still being processed.
The new law closely mirrors a unique portion of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law and has already led to a murder charge being thrown out in Juab County.
Defense attorney Mitch Vilos told KSL investigators he found the provision in Florida statutes and pitched it to the Utah Legislature. He said the justification hearing process would give people a chance to present evidence that they acted in self-defense and potentially spare them the cost of defending themselves in a trial.
Vilos is listed as one of two attorneys representing Clara in his criminal case. Both Clara and Vilos participated in multiple legislative hearings to speak in support of the bill.
“I got fired from my job,” Clara told lawmakers during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Feb. 18. “I can’t get another job with seven felony counts hanging over my head, but I don’t have the opportunity to present any of the evidence that would exonerate me because of the current system.”
In another legislative committee hearing on Feb. 26, Clara again spoke out in favor of HB227.
“I can assure you though, in my case, if I had to do it all over again, I would exercise my right to self-defense and live and go through all this mess again,” he said.
The legislature passed HB227 and the new law went into effect on May 5.
Clara filed a motion for a justification hearing on May 7.
Months of delays
Clara’s June trial was canceled and the justification hearing, which was initially scheduled for July, was pushed back to this week.
When reached by phone, defense attorney Clayton Simms, who is also representing Clara and participated in the justification hearing, was asked why Clara chose to delay resolution in the case by pursuing a justification hearing instead of going to trial months ago.
“Michael feels that the judge is going to dismiss this case,” Simms said. “This is a clear case of self-defense and defense of others.”
Simms said the case represents “a textbook case” of a weapon being used in the right way.
When asked about the stray bullet that endangered a nearby family, Simms responded, “This is the problem with this particular case, the police need to focus on finding the person who was driving the snowplow.”
Third District Judge Todd Shaughnessy asked both parties to file briefs and scheduled a hearing to announce his decision on Feb. 4, 2022.
Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at firstname.lastname@example.org or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.